By Carol Estocko for Exponent PR
Yesterday, I read an obituary in The New York Times for Lawrence G. Foster, the man who led Johnson & Johnson through a major crisis in the early 1980s.
For the uninitiated (or the very young), Foster’s strategy for dealing with a dangerous situation concerning one of the company’s best-known brands, Tylenol, is a shining example of how to handle a crisis. It is, in fact, a standard case study in many journalism and public relations curricula at colleges and universities across the country.
Here’s the scenario, in a nutshell. In late September 1982, police connected a string of mysterious deaths in and around Chicago to cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol. This news frightened Americans nationwide. That an over-the-counter medication they relied on to make them feel better could conceivably kill them was shocking. Not to mention that this was damaging the Tylenol brand — and might even result in its extinction.
Foster, a Johnson & Johnson vice president in charge of public relations, was instrumental in formulating the company’s response. The strategy was:
- Put consumer safety first.
- Respond to media inquiries quickly.
- Be entirely honest.
The company suspended all advertising for Tylenol and issued a national recall of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules (more than 30 million bottles) — an effort that cost the company in excess of $100 million. James E. Burke, Johnson & Johnson chairman and CEO, became the face of crisis response, appearing on television to detail the steps the company had taken in the interest of safety.
Two months later, the brand was reintroduced in new, ostensibly tamper-proof packaging. Within a year, Tylenol’s market share, which had plummeted dramatically, was nearly has high as it had been pre-crisis.
According to the Times obit, one Johnson & Johnson executive said in an interview, “From the very beginning, Larry said, ‘This is the principle we’re going to follow. We’re going to tell them what we know, and we’re not going to tell them what we don’t know. We’ll tell them we don’t know, and we’ll get back to them when we do know.’”
To this day, Foster’s strategy has been adopted by many organizations in crisis (if they’re smart). Putting people first, disseminating accurate information as quickly as possible and speaking the truth remain key ingredients for executing a successful crisis response in 2013.