Like many, I was saddened to read the news about former Johnson & Johnson leader James E. Burke’s death a few weeks ago. Burke is known for a great many accomplishments, of course, but what sticks with me is his exemplary leadership during the Tylenol crisis of 1982. Burke’s actions 30 years ago still merit attention today.
In October of 1982, Tylenol, which Johnson & Johnson manufactures to this day, was the leading pain reliever medicine in the United States. That status was jeopardized when seven people in Chicago died after taking extra-strength Tylenol pills that had been laced with lethal amounts of cyanide.
What did Johnson & Johnson do?
Once the connection was made between the Tylenol pills and the deaths, the media warned people to avoid using the product. Johnson & Johnson had to decide how to deal with the problem without destroying its reputation and its most profitable product. Adhering to Johnson & Johnson’s credo, Burke’s priorities were to protect the people first, and then the product. He achieved this by immediately issuing a recall, removing about 31 million bottles from store shelves across the country.
Once the product was removed from the market, Johnson & Johnson conceived a campaign to re-introduce Tylenol and restore consumer confidence. To this day, the company’s response is held up as a paragon of crisis management excellence for public relations professionals everywhere.
What did we learn from Johnson & Johnson?
Although social media and digital advancements have made the news landscape vastly different today, Weber Shandwick still counsels clients to follow a course of action similar to the one Burke led for Johnson & Johnson. Specifically, we recommend:
- Protect people, property and the environment.
- Engage a senior executive as a spokesperson to communicate regularly with stakeholders through the appropriate traditional and social media channels.
- Express sympathy for victims.
- Correct the problem.
- Connect with key stakeholders to regain their confidence.