Fortune lauds Tylenol PR
The May 28 Fortune magazine, in a full-page feature, said Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke's response to the Tylenol murders in 1982 "remains the gold standard in crisis control."
Burke could have tried to "ride out the storm or simply reacted to the regional problem," but he instead "went on the offensive, launching both a recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules and a massive PR campaign to inform the public," says the article by Jia Lynn Yant with "additional reporting" by Eugenia Levenson.
Burke "became the face of Tylenol, appearing on "60 Minutes" and later "even allowing cameras into the strategy sessions. He led by exuding calm and a sense of control," says the article.
Crisis expert James Lukaszewski, addressing the PRSA Westchester/Fairfield chapter and the Fairfield PR Assn., March 7, 2001, said the Tylenol story, as commonly told, is a "fairy tale."
Counselor Helio Fred Garcia, of Clark & Weinstock, who spoke on the same program, called the Tylenol story "a myth."
Lukaszewski says that when he is teaching a PR course students usually think that J&J pulled the drug between 24 and 72 hours.
The "astounding part" of a Harvard University videotape on Burke and Tylenol, said Lukeszewski, is that Burke learned of the tragedy in Chicago on Wednesday, Sept. 30, and called a staff meeting for Monday."
"Think about that," said Lukaszewski, "what started on Monday was an enormous debate within the organization as to what to do about that" (the murders).
Both J&J and the Federal Drug Administration on Thursday, Oct. 1, put out nationwide bulletins telling people not to take any Tylenol capsules.
J&J at first tried to localize the problem, recalling two batches that were circulated in the Chicago area.
The product recall was started after another attempted poisoning using Tylenols took place on the following Tuesday in Oroville, Calif. The victim became sick of strychnine poisoning but did not die.
Garcia said the "myth" of Tylenol is that the company reacted "within 24 hours." Perpetuating this myth was the 1999 movie "The Insider" in which actor Russell Crowe says Burke "just pulled Tylenol off the shelves in every store right across America instantly." On saying the word "instantly," Crowe made a sweeping motion with his right arm.
Problem Was Capsules
Other critics say the problem was not with the Tylenol analgesic or the packaging but with the capsule itself which could easily be taken apart and "spiked."
Some pharmacists would not stock any such capsules, believing they were unsafe.
The soft gel capsules were popular because consumers thought they dissolved quicker in the stomach. However, medical experts said tablets dissolve just as fast.
J&J, say critics, instead of acknowledging that the real problem was the capsules, reintroduced the product supposedly guarded by "tamper-resistant" packaging.
Diane Elsroth, 23, was poisoned via Tylenol capsules in February 1986 in Yonkers, New York. There was no indication that the seals on the bottle had been tampered with.
Burke, following this death, said, "Yes, indeed, I am," when a reporter at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., asked him on Feb. 19, 1986, if he was sorry J&J did not stop making Tylenols in capsules after the Chicago murders.
No Press Conference Was Held
While Burke has been lauded for his openness with the press, he did not hold a press conference after the 1982 murders. Reporters were handled on an individual basis.
Critics say that what J&J wanted to avoid was hundreds of reporters descending on headquarters and asking questions such as occurred after the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
One question would have been why would anyone be so angry at J&J? The Oct. 8, 1982 Wall Street Journal said that the company was a fierce competitor and litigator and had a number of enemies.
Said the WSJ:
"And although Tylenol has been known as an aggressive, even predatory marketer that frequently used litigation to stymie competitors, J&J plays down suggestions that industrial sabotage or an overzealous competitor is responsible for the poisonings."
It also said "J&J has developed a reputation for sometimes riding roughshod over inventors and small entrepreneurial firms from which it often buys technology."
In 1981, a federal jury awarded $93 million to three Minnesota businessmen who said J&J bought their electronic painkiller device but didn't market it since it competed with J&J's analgesic products. The award was being appealed.
Several other lawsuits involving J&J were also described in the article.
Almost never mentioned in Tylenol stories are the names of the seven people who died. They were Mary Kellerman, 12, who had a cold and took the capsules; Adam Janus, 27, and his brother, Stanley, 25, and Stanley's wife, Theresa, 19, who died when they took Tylenols after returning from the hospital where Adam died; Mary Reiner, 27, who had given birth to her third child several days previously; Mary McFarland, 31, and Paula Prince, 35, a flight attendant.
Relatives of the victims said J&J should have known that the capsules were vulnerable to tampering and at least put warnings on the bottles. About 50 poisoned capsules were found in eight bottles in Chicago suburbs.
The real heroes, say some, were the police and firefighters who went through the streets with bullhorns warning people not to take Tylenols.
Relatives of the victims battled with J&J for nearly eight years on the amount of the settlements. No offer was made until the day before a trial was to start in May 1991. All parties agreed to keep terms of the settlement secret.
Following the 1982 poisonings, J&J ordered its employees not to send gifts of any kind to the families of the victims.