The 1982 Tylenol crisis was a landmark in crisis communication and reputation management for its parent company Johnson & Johnson. The handling of the Tylenol crisis has helped influence today’s standards of crisis communication in a more positive way by promoting transparency not only to stakeholders and internal publics, but also to consumers. By using the media to connect and communicate with its consumers and target publics, Johnson & Johnson as a whole was able to inform and maintain their loyal consumer base. Not only were they able to maintain brand loyalty and equity, but they also set new standards for crisis communications that serve as guidelines for smart companies today.
How It Started
In 1982, when cyanide was found inside Extra-Strength Tylenol medicine bottles, Johnson & Johnson faced a challenging uphill battle with public perception. Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson’s bestselling product, now threatened the survival of the company as a whole. For a brand that relied so heavily on maintaining relationships with its consumers that emphasized trust and safety, this revelation was damaging to say the least. When seven people were found dead in the Chicago area from the cyanide inside the Tylenol bottles, market share immediately took a dive. With an unknown suspect tampering with the Tylenol medicine bottles, the company and its publics feared the consequences of this catastrophe. After such an upheaval, could Tylenol ever bounce back?
This tragedy was a turning point for Johnson & Johnson because it forced them to manage a crisis that came out of nowhere and was possibly the company’s worst nightmare. Chairman James Burke led a highly successful effort to manage this unthinkable crisis by opening up Johnson & Johnson’s doors to the media and recalling the medication for their consumers’ safety. By facilitating open communication with the media and the public as an extension, Johnson & Johnson was able to show their consumers what they were doing to remedy the situation.
Burke communicated openly about recalling Tylenol and repackaging the medication in a bottle with a tamper-proof seal. This recall was unconventional because at the time the practice was exceedingly uncommon, largely due to the expense. The recalls cost Johnson & Johnson upwards of $100 million, but they were pivotal in Johnson & Johnson’s recovery – allowing them to re-establish trust with their publics.
Staying in control of the situation, Burke incorporated consumer’s feedback into his management of the crisis and kept consumers constantly updated with pre-recorded messages and paid advertisements about progress from start to finish. This widely-admired strategy helped Johnson & Johnson regain its market share in only one year, and it has helped to shape crisis management standards by showing companies that transparency can lead to results.
There is much to be learned from Johnson & Johnson’s handling of their Tylenol crisis. Responding rapidly to a crisis and communicating openly and frequently about it to the public through the media can lead to measurable results that can save a brand from ruin in the eyes of the public. By showing consumers that their safety matters above all else, Johnson & Johnson solidified their place as a trustworthy company that cares about its consumers. Tylenol, still a market leader and bestselling painkiller, continues to thrive decades later thanks to its superior crisis communication and management. Stay tuned to Lionbridge onDemand’s blog for more marketing insights!