Public Relations Tactics

Analyzing the Tylenol Tampering Crisis

March 3, 2017

yvonne hemsey/getty images
yvonne hemsey/getty images

Johnson & Johnson’s response to seven Tylenol-related deaths in the Chicago area from cyanide poisoning in the fall of 1982 quickly became an enduring business example of crisis management done right.

In the March 1983 edition of PRSA's Public Relations Journal, PR consultant Mitchell Leon examined Johnson & Johnson’s swift reaction with a nationwide product recall and skillful media relations, which were among the keys to the brand’s long-term recovery.

“The first critical PR decision was taken immediately and with total support from company management, was to cooperate fully with the news media,” said Lawrence G. Foster, APR, Fellow PRSA, corporate vice president for public relations at J&J. “The press was key to warning the public of the danger.”

Furthermore, the company’s depiction of the incident as a new form of terrorism, as put forth by Chairman and CEO James E. Burke, was accepted and reiterated by many news commentators. The company spent millions of dollars recalling the product from stores and helped developed new industry-wide product protection methods.

A major factor in the public’s willingness to buy Tylenol again was, as Leon wrote, the communications plan developed by a seven-member J&J strategy group.

“I think what it has done is to give visibility to the good side of public relations and corporate responsibility,” Foster said. “Every public relations decision was based on sound, socially responsible principles.”

As Leon concluded, “the Tylenol tragedy proved once again that public relations is a business of basics, and that the best PR decisions are closely linked to sound business practices and a responsible corporate philosophy.”

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