Crisis needn’t strike a company solely because of its own neglect or disaster. Sometimes, situations emerge where the company can’t be blamed—but the company realizes quickly that it’ll get much blame if it fumbles the ball in its crisis-response.
Ever since cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol killed seven people in Chicago in 1982, corporate boards and business school students have studied the response of Johnson & Johnson (J&J,) Tylenol’s manufacturer, to learn how to handle crises. The culprits are still unknown almost 40 years later.
Successful Crisis Management: Full Responsibility, Proactive Stance
In 1982, Tylenol commanded 35 percent of the over-the-counter analgesic market in America. This over-the-counter painkiller was the drugmaker’s best-selling product, and it represented nearly 17 percent of J&J’s profits. When seven people died from consuming the tainted drug, Time magazine wrote of the tragedy’s victims,
Twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village took Extra-Strength Tylenol to ward off a cold that had been dogging her. Mary Reiner, 27… had recently given birth to her fourth child. Paula Prince, 35, a United Airlines stewardess, was found dead in her Chicago apartment, an open bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol nearby in the bathroom. Says Dr. Kim [the chief of critical care at Northwest Community Hospital]: “The victims never had a chance. Death was certain within minutes.”
A panic ensued about how widespread the contamination may be. Moreover, Americans started to question the safety of over-the-counter medications.
Advertising guru Jerry Della Femina declared Tylenol dead:
I don’t think they can ever sell another product under that name. There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this, and if they find him, I want to hire him because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler.
The ‘Grand-Daddy’ of Good Crisis Response
- J&J acted quickly, with complete candidness about what had happened, and immediately sought to remove any source of danger based on the worst-case scenario. Within hours of learning of the deaths, J&J installed toll-free numbers for consumers to get information, sent alerts to healthcare providers nationwide, and stopped advertising the product. J&J recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves and offered replacement products free of charge in the safer tablet form. J&J did not wait for evidence to see whether the contamination might be more widespread.
- J&J’s leadership was in the lead and seemed in full control throughout the crisis. James Burke, J&J’s chairman, was widely admired for his leadership to pull Tylenol capsules off the market and his forthrightness in dealing with the media. (The Tylenol crisis led the news every night on every station for six weeks.)
- J&J placed consumers first. J&J spent more than $100 million for the recall and relaunch of Tylenol. The stock had been trading near a 52-week high just before the tragedy, dropped for a time, but recovered to its highs only two months later.
- J&J accepted responsibility. Burke could have described the disaster in many different ways: as an assault on the company, as a problem somewhere in the process of getting Tylenol from J&J factories to retail stores, or as the acts of a crazed criminal.
- J&J sought to ensure that measures were taken to prevent as far as possible a recurrence of the problem. J&J introduced tamper-proof packaging (supported by an expanded media campaign) that would make it much more difficult for a similar incident to occur in the future.
- J&J presented itself prepared to handle the short-term damage in the name of consumer safety. That, more than anything else, established a basis for trust with their customers. Within a year of the disaster, J&J’s share of the analgesic market, which had fallen to 7 percent from 37 percent following the poisoning, had climbed back to 30 percent.
Business Principles Should Hold True in Good Times and Bad
When the second outbreak of poisoning occurred four years after the first, Burke went on national television to declare that J&J would only offer Tylenol in caplets, which could not be pulled apart and resealed without consumers knowing about it.
Burke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. He was named one of history’s ten most outstanding CEOs by Fortune magazine in 2003. In Lasting Leadership: What You Can Learn from the Top 25 Business People of Our Times (2004,) Burke emphasized,
J&J credo has always stated that the company is responsible first to its customers, then to its employees, the community and the stockholders, in that order. The credo is all about the consumer. [When those seven deaths occurred,] the credo made it very clear at that point exactly what we were all about. It gave me the ammunition I needed to persuade shareholders and others to spend the $100 million on the recall. The credo helped sell it.
Trust has been an operative word in my life. It embodies almost everything you can strive for that will help you to succeed. You tell me any human relationship that works without trust, whether it is a marriage or a friendship or a social interaction; in the long run, the same thing is true about business.
Idea for Impact: A Crisis Makes a Leader
The first few days after any disaster or crisis can be a make-or-break time for a company’s and its leaders’ reputation. The urgency experienced during a crisis often gives leaders the go-ahead to enact change faster than ever before.
Admittedly, the Tylenol case study is more clear-cut than most crises because, from the get-go, it is clearly evident that criminals, not Johnson & Johnson, were responsible for the poisoning and the withdrawal of Tylenol from stores was comparatively easier to execute.
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