Tainted Tylenol and Gold Standard Response

The death of seven people 30 years ago spurred a legendary crisis response that included development of the tamper-proof bottle for over-the-counter medications.Thirty years ago, seven people died from tainted Tylenol capsules, unleashing a corporate response still studied today as the gold standard in crisis communications. But most people don't know the half of it.

On September 29, 1982, a 12-year-old girl in Elk Grove, Illinois, popped an Extra Strength Tylenol capsule. Not knowing the capsule had somehow been laced with cyanide, the girl died later the same day. Six more people, including three in a single family, fell victim to the same fate in a mass murder that remains unsolved.

Led by CEO James Burke, Johnson & Johnson leaped into the morass and, ultimately, history. It famously recalled 264,000 bottles of Tylenol and offered customers a free replacement in a safer tablet form. At the time, recalls — certainly recalls at this order of magnitude — were rare.

However, the recall was just the tip of the iceberg in Johnson & Johnson's response. Burke cited the company's value statement of "putting patients first" as he galvanized a massive internal response. J&J executives and employees contacted doctors, nurses, hospital officials and pharmacists to reassure them about Tylenol and promise a solution that would provide increased patient security.

Within six weeks, Johnson & Johnson developed a "tamper-proof" bottle, which remains the bane of life for many people who struggle to open them, but also is the industry standard for safety.

Consistent with Burke's effort to save the Tylenol brand, Johnson & Johnson undertook an aggressive media outreach strategy, meeting one-on-one with reporters and editors. They avoided press conferences where they would have had less control over the conversation. But their media briefings were not full of spin. They talked about the company's patient-first commitment and design of a secure way to sell over-the-counter pain medicine.

J&J was bolstered by an early investigative conclusion that the tampering occurred at the point of sale, not in the factory. But that didn't cause Burke and company to ease up on their outreach. They monitored public and consumer perceptions through survey research and knew public confidence was shaken and its reputation hung in the balance.

In the end, the recall, massive outreach, product development and a re-launch of Tylenol in the new secure containers cost Johnson & Johnson more than $100 million. Within a year, Tylenol regained its market share and earned deeper customer loyalty. Its stock value grew and the company's crisis communications response became legend.

Shocked by the murders and several copycat incidents, Congress passed anti-tampering law, which the Food and Drug Administration quickly implemented. The law wasn't aimed at Johnson & Johnson — it was a key witness for how important and badly needed the law was. Today, people pay attention to the seals on over-the-counter products that resulted from the tainted Tylenol case and Johnson & Johnson's iconic response.

Even though the Tylenol response is a case study used in communications, business and management schools around the country, the lessons from the legend aren't always embraced — even by Johnson & Johnson.

In 2009, the drug company found itself in the embarrassing situation of having waited a year to recall batches of Tylenol, Motrin and other over-the-counter medications that contained a chemical found in wooden shipping pellets. Consumers had complained of moldy smells wafting from bottles, which in some cases caused temporary nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. By then, Johnson & Johnson had become a much more decentralized company and a division called McNeil Consumer Healthcare Products was in charge of Tylenol.

As the FDA wrote in early 2010, "McNeil should have acted faster. When something smells bad, literally and figuratively, companies must take all necessary actions."

Johnson & Johnson, of all companies, shouldn't have needed the warning.

 

The late Peter Morrissey of Morrissey & Company in Boston was the lead crisis communications counselor to Johnson & Johnson, advising on outreach and media strategies. Morrissey was a long-time member of Pinnacle Worldwide.