Prior to 1982, Tylenol was just the little bottle you grabbed out of your medicine cabinet when a headache hit. Seven deaths, millions of dollars and 35 years later, that little bottle is now the poster-child for crisis management.
In the years leading up to 1982, Tylenol dominated the over-the-counter painkiller industry with a controlling 37 percent share of the market. Consumers everywhere counted on Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to deliver a product that was consistently effective and trustworthy. The empire that Johnson & Johnson had carefully nurtured was critically threatened in October of 1982 when seven people in the Chicago area died from ingesting Tylenol Extra Strength.
The victims ranged from a 12-year-old girl who woke up with flu symptoms to a mother who had just given birth to her fourth child. All seven victims were seemingly unrelated and had died under the same mysterious circumstances with no evidence of foul play.
The first responders were dumbfounded by the string of deaths. What did all of these victims have in common? Helen Jensen, a nurse from the public health department, was combing over the details from an inventory taken at a house where three victims died when she made a startling realization: There were six missing Tylenol Extra Strength pills and three dead people — could the Tylenol be the culprit? Upon voicing this lead, the perceived absurdity of poisoned over-the-counter medication trounced her argument.
Further investigation proved Jensen right, and we now know that a still unidentified suspect removed the Tylenol bottles from the shelves of drugstores, laced the capsules with 10,000 times the lethal dose of potassium cyanide, and returned the bottles to the shelf. Consumers across the nation, plagued by fear, halted all purchasing of Tylenol products, and J&J’s market share quickly fell to 7 percent.
Johnson & Johnson’s Response
When news of the crisis broke, a crisis response team was quickly established, headed by then-CEO of Johnson & Johnson James E Burke (1925-2012). As terror spread throughout the nation, Burke, one of Fortune’s top 10 CEOs, and the crisis response team were faced with the immediate decision of either risking more deaths or removing the product from the shelves. After originally recalling all Tylenol products in the Chicago area, J&J decided it was in the public’s best interest to recall all 31 million Tylenol bottles — which were valued at an astounding $100 million.
Along with the recall, Johnson & Johnson opened a 1-800 hotline for anyone seeking information, sent over 400,000 warning messages to doctors offices and pharmacies, halted all advertising of the product, and offered a $100,000 reward for anyone with information about the suspect.
In a final effort to restore its reputation, J&J exchanged all already-purchased Tylenol capsules with a new form of the medication: tablets, which are much harder to tamper with. This exchange cost Johnson & Johnson millions of dollars, but if it even saved one life, the benefit far outweighed the cost. With every available preventative action taken, and no more reported deaths, the crisis response team turned their attention to phase two: the uphill battle of regaining consumers’ trust in Tylenol products.
Reintroducing the Product
For most consumers, the thought of ever taking an over-the-counter pain medication — not to mention Tylenol — was unimaginable. How could anyone be sure that there wasn’t an invisible killer hiding beneath the thin layer of cotton? That layer of cotton became an afterthought when the FDA introduced a new regulation calling for all packaging to be tamper-resistant, complete with the warning, “Do not use if safety seals are broken.”
Johnson & Johnson was the first business to adhere to these new FDA regulations in the hope that it would demonstrate the company’s commitment to the safety of its consumers.
To encourage the scared-off consumers to return to their once beloved Tylenol, J&J offered them a deal that few could refuse: a $2.50 off coupon distributed through the most popular national newspapers. J&J knew that “consumers” were not the only public they needed to reassure, so they turned their attention elsewhere. Over 2,250 J&J sales people made presentations to doctors offices, hospitals and pharmacies around the country in the hope that they could convince medical professionals to continue recommending Tylenol products. As a result of J&J’s tireless efforts, by December, Tylenol had regained 24 percent of the over-the-counter painkiller market share. In two months, Tylenol had made it full circle, from a trusted pain medication, to a cold-hearted killer, and finally, back to America’s favorite analgesic — a truly incredible recovery.
Earlier in the case study I mentioned that J&J did a nationwide recall because it was in the public’s best interest. This statement, “public’s best interest,” was the governing principle for their crisis management plan and became the primary reason for Tylenol’s flawless recovery. Jerry Knight, a reporter for the Washington Post, said it perfectly in his October 1982 article: “What Johnson & Johnson executives have done is communicate the message that the company is candid, contrite, and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public.”
Equally as important to its recovery was J&J’s dedication to thoroughly addressing all of their publics. Through transparency, J&J promoted open communication with the media so that the 125,000 news stories attributed to the crisis were mostly positive. Furthermore, by establishing a relationship and cooperating with both the Chicago police department and FDA, J&J was able to aid in the investigation and assist in the development of the tamper-resistant packaging, leading to exponential opportunities for positive media coverage.
Rather than employing crisis-response strategies like avoidance and refutation, which seek to distance or eliminate one’s self from the crisis, Johnson & Johnson adopted repentance and rectification. By using repentance, which is simply asking for forgiveness, J&J took responsibility for whatever role they played in the crisis and assured the public of their commitment toward making it right. J&J achieved rectification, or taking action to make sure that the occurrence will not happen in the future, by its timely adoption of tamper-resistant packaging.
The Tylenol Murders are said to be the first act of domestic terrorism in the United States and received almost as much media coverage as the assassination of JFK. With attributions such as these, it is an incredible feat that Tylenol still exists, and even more so that it continues to be widely used.Tags: case study, Communique PR, Crisis Communications, Crisis Management, Public relations