According to recent news reports, FBI investigators have reopened the Tylenol poisonings case from 1982. A couple of fortuitous events coincided: First, the 25th anniversary in 2007 brought new tips to law enforcement. Second, utilizing new forensic techniques the FBI has seized computer files and evidence from the person originally convicted of extortion in the case. (James L. Lewis was not convicted of the poisonings, just trying to make money from Johnson & Johnson.)
The renewed investigation brings back to mind the general conclusion that this was one of the great case studies in how a company should handle a product crisis. Indeed it was. As one of the consultants who advised J&J on how to handle media and customers, I still believe that J&J made all the right moves. The response was led by CEO James Burke, who was as decent in a closed door meeting as he was answering questions from Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” The company went beyond what regulatory and law enforcement authorities recommended they had to do.
No two crises are ever the same, and we have had many others that dwarf this one in terms of number of fatalities, lives impacted and dollars at stake. Yet Tylenol is still considered THE case study.
The field of crisis communications has countless more examples of poorly and well-handled responses. One point I always make is that unlike almost all other crises, Tylenol was different in that there was no “contributory negligence” on the part of J&J. In almost all other crises, while not intentional, there is some aspect that the parties are responsible for. No company wants an oil or gas spill, no one wants to have an industrial accident, yet these types of operational mishaps do occur. The companies must shoulder part of the responsibility for the operational or security breakdown.
The key lesson from Tylenol : there is no substitute for appropriate transparency and clarity when responding to a crisis. Almost three decades after the first poisoning, and long after the story had faded from the news, a new investigative wrinkle has moved stories of the crisis back into the headlines. But the stories are about the crime, not a rehashing of the product recall. The initial J&J response ensured that the company actions will continue to be portrayed favorably.