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The 1982 Tylenol Crisis
A landmark case study in effective public relations.
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 by Soterios Zoulas
Zoulas Communications

Soterios ZoulasRecent news reports have resurrected memories of a 28-year seminal criminal case that has never been solved.  

In 1982, seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area. More recently, the FBI and other police agencies searched the home of ongoing suspects who were ordered to submit DNA samples, fingerprints and palm prints in response to a Chicago-area grand jury subpoena.

My interest, however, stems from its importance as a case study in the field of public relations rather than as a criminal case. It has been a staple in the teaching of public relations in general and crisis communications in particular for nearly 30 years. It shows clear lessons of what a company should do when it finds itself in such a crisis.

News reports at the time said that that an unknown suspect/s put 65 milligrams of deadly cyanide into Tylenol capsules -- 10,000 more than what is necessary to kill a human. Academic researchers who have studied the case found that the tampering occurred once the product reached the shelves.
They were removed from the shelves, infected with cyanide and returned to the shelves. 

In 1982, Tylenol, owned by Johnson & Johnson, controlled 37 percent of its market with revenue of about $1.2 million. Immediately after the cyanide poisonings, its market share was reduced to seven percent. The company was faced with the dilemma of the best way to deal with the problem without destroying its reputation and its most profitable product.

Once the connection was made between the Tylenol capsules and the reported deaths, public announcements by Johnson & Johnson were made warning people about the consumption of the product. Furthermore, the company took the dangerous step for the future of the product by the immediate product recall from the entire country, which amounted to about 31 million bottles and a loss of more than $100 million dollars. They also halted all advertisements for the product.

However, the company at the time and today has won praise for its rapid response and appropriate action. Having sidestepped the position others have found themselves in -- of having been slow to act in the face of consumer concern and media pressure -- they achieved the status of consumer champion. The company took responsibility and placed public safety above profit.

According to reports, within six months of the catastrophe, the company had recovered 70% of its market share for the drug -- and the fact this went on to improve over time showed that the company had succeeded in preserving the long term value of the brand. Companies, who had been criticized for less than honest handling of a crisis, found their reputation damaged for as long as five years after a crisis.

In fact, according to academic researchers, there is some evidence that it was rewarded by consumers who were so reassured by the steps taken that they switched from other painkillers to Tylenol.

The features that made Johnson & Johnson's handling of the crisis a success included the following:

• They acted quickly, with complete openness about what had happened, and immediately sought to remove any source of danger based on the worst case scenario - not waiting for evidence to see whether the contamination might be more widespread

• Having acted quickly, they then sought to ensure that measures were taken which would prevent as far as possible a recurrence of the problem

• They showed themselves to be prepared to bear the short-term cost in the name of consumer safety. That more than anything else established a basis for trust with their customers

But Johnson & Johnson was not done. It had to come up with a campaign to re-introduce its product and restore confidence back to the consumer. According to a variety of academic studies of the Tylenol case; Johnson & Johnson took the following steps to re-introduce the product.

1. Tylenol products were re-introduced containing a triple-seal tamper resistant packaging. It became the first company to comply with the Food and Drug Administration mandate of tamper-resistant packaging. Furthermore, they promoted caplets, which are more resistant to tampering.

2. In order to motivate consumers to buy the product, they offered coupons on the purchase of their product. They were available in the newspapers as well as by calling a toll-free number.

3. To recover loss stock from the crisis, Johnson & Johnson made a new pricing program that gave consumers up to 25% off the purchase of the product.

4. Over 2250 sales people made presentations for the medical community to restore confidence on the product.

Johnson & Johnson’s responsibility to its publics proved to be its most efficient public relations tool. It was the key to the brand’s survival.  This case has a unique place in the study of public relations because the company was open, direct, honest and successful. Nearly 30 years later companies CEOs, government officials, politicians and others should take heed.

Soterios Zoulas is president of Zoulas Communications, advising 
clients on crisis communications, and also teaches public relations at several Boston area colleges, with more than 25 years experience in 
public relations, journalism, radio and television. 

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