Week 4 Post – Tylenol Case Study

Chapter 7 (while I know it’s not assigned yet) consits of two “text-book” crisis. Please read the Tylenol Murders. We’ve already discussed this case in class so now let’s discuss it here.

The Tylenol case is considered a landmark case in crisis communication. The PR Director, Robert Kniffen, is seen as handling the case with professionalism and is often benchmarked as an expert.

From Chapters 1-6 apply what you have leared thus far. Analyze the case, identify the stages of crisis communication, tell me about how Johnson and Johnson handled internal, external, and media communications. Also, was there anything that you read in this case study that surprised you. If so what was it and why?


19 thoughts on “Week 4 Post – Tylenol Case Study

  1. The Tylenol case is a big reason why crisis management, crisis communication, and crisis prevention exist today.
    The first stage of crisis communication is detection. In this case there were no prodromes. Nothing like this had ever taken place. It took a call from a reporter before the company realized something was wrong.
    Stage two is prevention/preparation. Since there were no prodromes, it was nearly impossible to prepare and to prevent this from happening. The company had an emergency plan that dictated chain of command, but that was about it.
    Stage three is containment. This is where Tylenol and Robert Kniffen really excelled. He assembled a crisis team to investigate all aspects of the crisis. This team analyzed all parts of the crisis, and determined that it was cyanide that had killed the victims. The company then fully cooperated with authorities and the media, and made warning the public its first priority. Because a sense of public responsibility was shown by Johnson and Johnson, the public tended to trust how the company was handling the horrifying situation.
    The next stage is recovery. Another stroke of genius by the members of Johnson and Johnson, the company installed tamper-proof seals on all of their products. After it had become public that someone had tampered with the medication, it became clear that the company had to do something to regain the publics’ trust in the product itself. The tamper proof seal did this. Also, the company offered coupons that could be accessed by telephone, where customers were informed of new safety procedures.
    The fifth stage is learning. As Johnson and Johnson acquired more companies, this case became a learning experience, and a prodrome for future possible crisis. The development of future crisis plans were derived from direct experiences from the Tylenol case. A need for a crisis communication plan was revealed.
    The company did such a great job maintaining transparency with its employees and the public. There was never a sense that the company was covering anything up, or hiding anything from the public. The company also had a quality prior relationship with the media, that helped during the detection phase. These types of communication allowed for trust all around.
    In some ways, I am surprised that the company rebounded so quickly from this crisis. Even when crisis like these are handled well, there seems to be a residual apprehensiveness from the public to trust a company again, especially when lives are lost. It’s a true testament to the work done by the PR team at Johnson and Johnson.

    Sam Plymale

    • I agree with what you wrote about the company being transparent, Sam! Johnson & Johnson kept their employees and the media informed at all times. Every time they got new information, they would tell their internal and external publics. This company strategy is crucial to gaining trust and respect. Look at how well the company did during this crisis and even now (years later). The fact that the company really put itself out there to keep their customers safe earned their customers’ trust during such a horrifying ordeal. I think that’s why most people still use Johnson & Johnson products; they see it as safe and reliable.

  2. What a fascinating case study! This is a horrible story but the timeline of the actions of the Johnson & Johnson PR team is extremely interesting. I definitely believe that this crisis helped to set industry standards for PR professionals during crises.
    The first stage of a crisis is detection and at that time, the Johnson & Johnson Company didn’t have any prodromes to warn them of the possibility of this kind of tragedy involving their product. This incident does serve as a model for prodromes for companies now, though.
    The second stage of a crisis is prevention and preparation. Even though the Johnson & Johnson Company did not have a specific crisis communication plan, they did have a emergency plan and call list for crises such as plant fires (Fearn-Banks, 91). This emergency plan helped to layout the steps that the company should take to respond to this crisis. This is why all companies should have some sort of plan for emergencies. It gives officials a roadmap that will help them stay on track of the situation.
    The third stage of a crisis is containment. Johnson & Johnson demonstrated a great understanding of this principle when they recalled hundreds of Tylenol products. This action not only showed they were trying to stop the poisonings but that they truly did care about the consumers’ safety over the company’s profits. This was such a serious issue and I believe that if the Tylenol wasn’t voluntarily recalled, Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t be as strong of a company as they are now.
    The fourth stage of a crisis is recovery and the fifth stage is learning. As previously stated, I believe that the way Johnson & Johnson handled this crisis allowed them to remain a strong company. When the crisis hit, company officials acted fast. They showed their concerns by being truthful to the media, voluntarily recalling their products and keeping their employees informed and comforted (through company support such as temporary jobs in other parts of the factory during the crisis) (Fearn-Banks, 98-99). The learning stage not only benefited the Johnson & Johnson Company but also countless other companies as well. With the implementation of the new tamper-proof lid, companies were now able to make sure that their customers would be protected from this type of threat. Also, the entire timeline of events during this crisis (such as receiving the unusual phone call from the reporter) are now prodromes for the companies of today. The quick, efficient, truthful way that the Johnson & Johnson PR team responded to the crisis also serves as a role model for company crises no matter what the topic matter may be.
    Johnson & Johnson handled their internal, external and media communications great! They truly kept everyone informed. I loved their credo that was on page 92. I think all companies should have very similar credos to that one. It just shows how much good character this company has. They truly do put their consumers first. This not only creates a trusting and respectful relationship with those outside of the company (look at how the reporters trusted the PR team and how they wrote their stories) but it makes employees have a strong loyalty towards the company (after all, employees and their families may be the company’s customers, too).
    What really surprised me, with this case study, was that they didn’t find the person who put the cyanide in the Tylenol pills. The guy they believe did it, served time but got released (Fearn-Banks, 101)!
    Laura Taylor

    • I agree, this case was extremely interesting yet stressful to be put in that situation. I also agree that companies should have an emergency plan in place, which J&J did but they didn’t have a crisis plan, which I think majority of offices should have one by now.

    • I learn something new from this case study everytime I read it. It’s such a horrible situation to be put in, but it’s created something that will help companies from now on. Laura, you spoke about loyalty, too and that is something I really think helped J&J in the final stages. I mentioned in my post how the employees wore “We’re Coming Back” buttons to show that they believed in the CEO and the company. Right off the back, J&J’s continued honesty and care towards its consumers (as seen in the credo on page 92), employess and the media, gave them that extra time and support they needed to really take control of the situation before it worsened.

      – Cherese

    • Laura,

      I agree, the way the company handled all phases of their communication was impressive. I think sometimes a company can be defined by how they react in this type of crisis. Because of their transparency during the crisis and moving forward, Johnson and Johnson remains one of the more trusted companies today.


  3. The Tylonal crisis was potentially the best thing someone could do for a crisis, having dealing with the public, yet keeping a positive view with the news media, remaining honest is the first key and thats what was represented here, the book expresses the key component in honest and this was absolutly the best turnout for both companys. The beginning stages of the media finding out before the corporation was shocking, but they speed at which the corporation put together the PR team along with the crisis team. Everything worked at the right time, along with the previous relationship with the public and media. ff any other corporation, without the type of media, and public relationship J&J had, the corporation would have fell. But learning from previous chapters, the corporation did everything correctly and had life corporation saving results

  4. The only suprise I had were the factt the idea of tylonoal was willing to pull any and every capsual off the shelves as long as it meant saving their image along with their corporation. many corporations would have pulled state-wide of their products, but during the middle of their crisis they pulled out each of their products through the nation, pure dedication. also am I the only person who finds things hard to fill out the comments on this thing to match all the other classmates? sorry just my random thoughts

  5. Antonio, Laura, Sam – all excellent analysis of the case study.

    Here are a few of my thoughts on the case…

    There were several aspects of this crisis case that made Johnson & Johnson stand out. Even though the company knew they were not responsible for the tampering of the product, they assumed responsibility. I believe this was an essential element of their success in surviving and not losing market share. By ensuring public safety first and recalling all of their products from the market they sent a clear message – “Hey, consumers, we are listening, we care, and you come first.” They didn’t think about ROI or lost revenue. They thought about lives.

    What’s more is that they went back to the company credo – the foundation of the company. They didn’t lose sight of what they stood for and that also helped them.

    Reintroducing the product just as successful as taking it off the market.

    They created the triple-tamper proof seal. A first in the OTC drug market. And, they also developed caplets.

    Offered $2.50 coupon via newspapers and the 800 number.

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

    They become the “authority” in the field. Their sales team made 2250 presentations to the medical community in an effort to restore confidence in the company and the product.


    • Gina,

      I believe that sometimes people are ultimately defined by how they act or react in times of crisis or in the “difficult” times. I think this can be true in the business world as well, as companies are more in the public spotlight when a crisis is occurring. You’re not going to get any more media coverage than you will in a crisis situation. So reacting with honest measures, transparency, and acting with the public interest at the forefront is key during a crisis. Johnson and Johnson obviously did this and are reaping the benefits still today as one of the more trusted companies around.


  6. This case was a horrific thing to happen to Johnson and Johnson. To have something like this happen to a well-known, popular product could of been devastating to the “household name” company if it wasn’t for Kniffen.

    Stage 1 – Detection, according to the reading there were no prodromes to give a heads up to the company. It was actually a reporter from the ‘Chicago Sun-Times, who informed Kniffen that there have been reported deaths from the consumption of the Johnson and Johnson product which was Extra Strength Tylenol.

    Stage 2 – Prevention/Preparation, because this has never happened to the company before. According to the text, the company didn’t have a specific communications plan but it did have an emergency plan which started by notifying the chain of command. A meeting took place with top executives of Johnson and Johnson as well as McNeil Consumer Products Company to figure out what to do from there. David Collins, a chairman at McNeil, put together a seven person crisis team which was to find out what would happen if people took the medication so they could figure out how to treat the people which they considered to be the “healing process.”

    Stage 3 – Containment, It was decided that a recall was to be put in effect for the Extra Strength Tylenol from stores in the Chicago area.

    Stage 4 – Recovery, The company survived this incident and according to the text, “Johnson and Johnson was successful in coping the with crisis [because]: “ 1. The company was open to the media. 2. It was willing to recall the product to matter what that meant to the company and 3. It appealed to the American sense of fair play and asked for the public’s trust.” (Fearn-Banks, pg. 93)

    Stage 5 – Learning, This situation caused a concern for future products so now Tylenol comes with seal proof tab which can assist consumers in noticing if a product was tampered with or was safe to consume.

    To my understanding Johnson and Johnson handled internal, external, and media communications very well. They were open and honest to the media, public, and employees and the immediately conducted a meeting to solve the issue.

    The only surprise to me was that they didn’t have a crisis communication plan. It says in the text that very few company’s had one at the time but to me if I was an executive of a major, household name company, I would want a crisis communication plan if I heard other companies had one. If my product is consumed by millions of people, I would want a plan in effect just in case something were to happen. Plan for the best, expect the worst.

    • I think that companies in the 80s didn’t have crisis communication plans because the need for this specific information was new to businesses. They knew crises could happen but I believe that it was taken for granted that it wouldn’t happen to them. I believe that the Tylenol crisis really opened the eyes of business leaders to the possibility that this COULD happen to them (like it did to Johnson & Johnson) and they should be prepared to handle it if it does.

      • I agree, companies didnt know what to do around this time (I believe) thats probabily why no prodromes took place, only crisis. Now their only plan was to handle the situation in the best possible way and J&J did just that. This is a perfect example of a company that lived and learned

  7. If there is such a thing, the Tylenol Murders created the “perfect crisis.”

    We have a true-to-form “textbook crisis” in front of us where a company not only survived the crisis, but in fact came out better than before. Transparency was key in Johnson & Johnson’s survival and the longevity of the Tylenol brand.

    Companies can lean heavy on certain stages of a crisis, but Johnson & Johnson excelled at stages four and five, recovery and learning. The text states “Johnson & Johnson had one overriding priority: Warn the public.” This is an obvious entry for prevention/preparation (stage two), but I see it as the first step toward recovery.

    How many CEOs have the first thought of “Let everyone know something is wrong” and not jump to hiding and spinning the truth?

    The natural answer to someone adding dangerous things, such as cyanide in this case, to a product is to change said product. The introduction of taper-proof seals, in all honesty, is a no-brainer after something of this magnitude. But the transparency Johnson & Johnson showcased was simply amazing.

    After reading this case, I would like to buy Johnson & Johnson products more often – I can only imagine what the public felt after the event and seeing “big wigs” look out for the little guy over their checkbooks.

    If there is such a thing, the Tylenol Murders created the “perfect crisis.”

    • You brought up a good point, Danny. Even today, you don’t see many executives jumping to tell public the truth. If anything, it’s the PR practitioners who are trying to encourage them to tell the public what’s going on. That could be the reason why more and more companies are hiring PR practitioners; they need a moral compass to guide them.

      Like you, I would also like to buy more Johnson & Johnson products. In creating the “perfect crisis,” they’ve significantly contributed to my future profession and aided in my learning; the least I can do for them is buy a $5 bottle of lotion.

      – Cherese

    • I agree! I thought by Johnson & Johnson being so open with the media, showed great concern for the people and they well- being; and thats what gain alot of peoples trust back when everything was all said and done. That’s why to this day there is a great amount of consumers including me that still buy Tylenol, and the extra strength kind at that!

  8. In 2007, Fortune Magazine praised Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol murders as the “gold standard of in crisis control” and after reading more about the case, that title is rightfully earned. Even without a crisis plan in place, J & J has provided a helpful guide to crises for years to come. They achieved this by doing the following:

    1. Detection – Unfortunately, there weren’t any previous cases or prodromes for J & J to examine. All they had was a suspicious phone call from a reporter.

    2.Prevention – During this stage, J & J did the only thing they could do, which was alerting everyone down the line of command. After everyone was told, they immediately called a meeting with the top executives to discuss what the next step was.

    3. Containment – I’ve always seen this stage as the make it or break it stage for companies in crisis, so it’s no surprise that J & J were on the ball. Creating the crisis team was very smart thinking. I would imagine having seven people whose primary focus was tracing the problem, allowed Robert Kniffin and Lawrence Foster to handle more things on the outside. Not only did the crisis team focus on where the cyanide came from, but they were also researching ways to “heal” the consumers affected. Another great decision for J&J was cooperating with the media and FBI. It showed the media’s audience that they want to find the murderer just as much as the consumers. The major part of this stage was keeping their key publics informed. People are more willing to support and trust companies if they don’t feel like they’re being ‘played.’ The ultimate decision to recall the products was also a good choice especially since they didn’t know where or how the capsules became contaminated.

    4. Recovery – Creating the 33 phone lines for just customer questions was a good way to filter the calls they were getting in the office. Once again, it kept their publics out of the dark. They also kept their employees informed with “videotaped reports” and sent “information packages…to major distributors, who in a short time, notified half a million retailers and medical professionals.” (Fearn-Banks, 99) Offering the coupons for the product was another great incentive for people buying it. The commercial and ad probably helped a lot, too.

    5. Learning – The number one thing they learned is to create a crisis plan and ask the question, “What if?” As a result of this, they also learned to protect their products by putting tamper-proof caps on the bottles. This set the precedent for other companies as well. The last major lesson is that being transparent really works!

    The thing that surprised me the most was that Foster didn’t know that the manufacturing plants used cyanide for testing. This is something that should have been brought up to him when it was first discovered that cyanide was in the capsules. It was very ethical of him to call up the reporters and tell them the truth, but it could have been avoided.

    BONUS: I loved that the workers wore “We’re Coming Back” buttons. It shows that the employees trusted CEO James Burke and that he supported them. I think the overall support for one another was another big reason why J & J was able to bounce back.

  9. The Tylenol case was such a huge deal for PR professionals during this time. Lawrence Foster, along with Robert Kniffin was incredible and set a big impact on how to handle crisis within huge companies. Their credo stated four top priorities during any crisis communications that included the consumer, the employees, the communities, and the stockholders. Their first priority was to the public, and that was an incredible way to show their concern for their consumers and how important their consumers are to them, and their brand. The text says there were three points that marked the reason why Johnson & Johnson was successful in coping with the crisis which was 1. The company was open with the media, 2. Recalling of the product no matter how it could have affected the business, 3. It presented as fair play to ask for the public’s trust. Johnson & Johnson crisis team also covered all grounds with consumers, medical professionals, employees and other internal groups, and the FDA. This kind of communication, patience, and sincerity; is what kept people’s trust in Johnson & Johnson.
    What shocked me the most was the concern, the head of PR for Johnson & Johnson’s Lawrence Foster showed during this ordeal of a situation for the company and its brand. The fact that Foster called the Associated Press every time he would get new information that had to be reported to the public showed a great effort and concern for the people. He protected his reputation for being honest, fair, and ethical. I loved how Foster dealt with the matter, because it showed the concern for its investors, consumers, people that make a great deal to any given company; because a company wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t for those types of people, and Foster knew that. I admired how Johnson & Johnson was open to the media, because they knew the media was the closest way they could get to their consumers, and they took advantage of that, to gain their trust back with those people.
    Carmen Lamb

  10. What a really good article! I didn’t even think of all those companies being an “umbrella” and I always enjoy Johnson & Johnson’s commercials and how they advertise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s