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Learning from Their Mistakes: How Companies Effectively Respond to Crisis

— October 5, 2018

Learning from Their Mistakes: How Companies Effectively Respond to Crisis

Much can be learned from the way Johnson & Johnson chose to respond to the Tylenol tragedies of the 1980s.  At the time, someone had tampered with pill bottles, injecting potassium cyanide into the containers and killing seven people in the Chicago area.  The culprit was never identified, although a tax consultant, James W. Lewis, was found guilty of extortion in connection with the case in 1983.  He had sent a letter to the company indicating he would stop the killings if he was paid a large sum of money.  Later, he said he had no connection with the actual tampering.

“It made no sense,” said Tyrone C. Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general. “There was no clear and intended victim, but just anyone — anyone who happened to have the misfortune to buy a bottle of Tylenol.”

As companies struggle to brush large-scale conspiracies and bad business practices under the rug, the Tylenol case continues to serve as an example of preserving consumer trust amid chaos.

“People were terrorized,” Richard Brzeczek, a former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, said.  Nevertheless, the brand remained on the market.  After all, the pills themselves were safe and effective.  It was the packaging that needed reworking.

Learning from Their Mistakes: How Companies Effectively Respond to Crisis
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

After the deaths, the McNeil Consumer Products division of Johnson & Johnson initiated one of the largest recalls ever ordered in the pharmaceutical industry with more than 100 state and federal agents involved with reconstructing the route of the poisoned capsules.  And, the company was able to effectively regain trust by repackaging the pain pills and getting them back on the shelves.

In just six weeks, Johnson & Johnson began offering a new bottle with cotton wadding, a foil seal, a childproof top, and a plastic pull tab.  Capsules were also promptly replaced with caplets the following year.

Then, in 2010, it was revealed that Johnson & Johnson had bought up defective Motrin tablets without informing consumers or government regulators in a “phantom recall.”  The company sent agents pretending to be ordinary shoppers into stores to buy up its products.  It was very likely attempting to avoid another breach of trust that it may not have recovered from.

Communications and branding consultant Alan Hilburg said despite the underhanded move, “We’re seeing too many examples [of companies allowing situations to get worse] simply because they forgot the lesson that you’re going not to be judged by what caused the crisis but by how you respond.”

Consumers need to feel secure that the products they’re buying are safe and effective.  They need to be able to trust the products will actually do what the labeling says.  “We concluded we were never going to be judged by what caused the problem,” said Hilburg. “We were always going to be judged on how we responded to it.

Johnson & Johnson became a prime example of corporate responsibility by swiftly reacting and correcting the Tylenol issue.  So much so that the 2010 scandal did not disrupt its reputation.  And, even though the packaging crisis happened years ago, others can still learn from the way it chose to respond and the example set.


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