Tylenol, an over-the-counter painkiller, was the most successful product in the USA back in the day. It accounted for 19% of profits for Johnson & Johnson in early 1982. Tylenol was the ultimate painkiller that captured  37% of the market share until something horrible happened and things turned drastically for Johnson & Johnson.

In 1982, presumably, someone truly malicious replaced Tylenol with cyanide-laced capsules, resealed them, and placed them on nearly 6 pharmacies and food stores in Chicago. When purchased and consumed, at least 7 people died a horrific death from the poisoning. 

Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of McNeil Consumer Products Company which makes Tylenol suddenly found itself in a huge crisis.

At the very beginning of the incident, the company itself wasn’t aware of what and how it happened. Robert Andrews, who was assistant director for public relations at Johnson & Johnson mentioned the details of how they got to know something bad has happened without them knowing:

 “We got a call from a Chicago news reporter. He told us that the medical examiner there had just given a press conference. People were dying from poisoned Tylenol. He wanted our comment. As it was the first knowledge we had here in this department, we told him we knew nothing about it. In that first call, we learned more from the reporter than he did from us.” 

James Burke who was then the chairman of Johnson & Johnson quickly formed a 7 member team to deal with the whole thing. To stop negative media outrage, the plan was to effectively solve the entire case. To begin things, the first question Buke had was ‘how to protect these people?’ And second, ‘how to save the product?’ 

As the first order from Burke, consumers were alerted not to purchase the product until the case is examined. Next, not only were they ordered to stop manufacturing Tylenol but they also had to recall all that was in circulation. 

Johnson & Johnson, putting people’s safety first even though it cost them a million dollars, started to build a positive image in the media. The result was sympathy and acceptance from the public that Tylenol was indeed a victim of a bitter crime.

Next, Johnson & Johnson used the media, both PR and paid advertising to communicate their strategy during the crisis. All around the world consumers were alerted to what the company has gone through and to stop using Tylenol. The company also issued a 1-800 hotline to help people regarding the safety of the product along with pre-taped daily messages with updated statements about the crisis.

Next, several press conferences were held. People were warned. Positive exposure for the company was earned, all under the chairmanship of Burke. Before the crisis, the company never had sought press coverage. This time, it knew what crisis communication could do to the company’s standing and its reputation.

Days went by. Safety measures about Tylenol were issued through press conferences and media. New safety instructions rolled out. A triple-layered package in a glued box, a seal, and a foil on the mouth of the bottle is now safe to use. Just like that Tylenol became the first-ever product to use the new tamper-resistant packaging after just 6 months of the crisis it faced. 

Many people across the globe laud Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis as an example of success when confronted with a threat to an organization’s existence. 

Johnson & Johnson used forgiveness and sympathy to tackle the issue. Forgiveness was sought from the public even though they were innocent in the crime and that created acceptance for the crisis. The company apologized and offered sympathy to the loved ones of the victims. 

Negative feelings for the company came to a halt through that. The world now thought of Johnson & Johnson as not the culprit but as a victim of an unfair attack from external persons. 

The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis is an example of how an organization should communicate with the public during a crisis.

“The Tylenol crisis is without a doubt the most exemplary case ever known in the history of crisis communications. Any business executive, who has ever stumbled into a public relations ambush, ought to appreciate the way Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol poisonings. They have effectively demonstrated how major business has to handle a disaster.” 

Today, the company has completely recovered from the loss of millions of dollars it went through during the crisis. Johnson & Johnson has now, once again, reestablished a trustworthy name for selling Tylenol, setting an example for dealing with a crisis effectively. 

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What is Crisis Communication?

The collection, processing, and dissemination of information that is required to address a state of crisis/emergency is known as crisis communication. In the case of an organization, crisis communication is disseminating information about a crisis that directly impacts its customers or reputation. Johnson & Johnson was quick enough to communicate the crisis through PR and paid advertising, stopping the spread of damage.

What is a Crisis Communication Plan? 

A crisis communication plan helps an organization set aside rules and guidelines that help it take steps for when the crises emerge, how to tell the people about it, and how to prevent them in the future. 

The plan also makes sure to quickly spread the news in order to reduce the calamities as much as possible.  In addition, with each crisis, an organization must determine who to contact, when, and how.

Now that we’ve established some understanding of what crisis communication is, let’s see what is considered a crisis in an organization. 

Types of Crises

An organization can go through any of the following crises at any time:

Financial Crisis

A sudden financial loss that causes disturbance in the revenue and budget is a type of crisis. In such a scenario an organization finds it hard to service its debts, pay salaries and meet other financial obligations. Inflation and bankruptcy may also lead to a financial crisis. Johnson & Johnson faced a loss of a million dollars due to the Tylenol case. However, they covered it by acting in time and doing the right thing. 

Technological Crisis

Technology failures such as hardware or software failure can result in a technology crisis. For instance, a crashed server or a prolonged disruption of the internet will cause hindrance in communication with clients and customers resulting in a crisis.

Personal Crisis

Personnel crises are those crises that occur due to misconduct and illegal activity on the part of your staff. Such a crisis occurs because it leaves a bad impression on the reputation of your company. The issues can either be related to your organization or can be a personal matter. What matters is how the employers deal with such a situation. Handling this situation in an effective way can help prevent the reputation from worsening. 

For instance, your company is likely to be impacted by an employee who is found to be a part of something illegal or by an insensitive comment from someone in the senior management. 

Organizational Crisis

An organizational crisis occurs solely due to the wrongdoing of the organization itself, For instance, if your organization sells its customers wrong information, sells fake products, uses customers’ private information for illegal acts, or misleads others, etc., your organization could be at stake. 

Once occurred, an organizational crisis can be hard to amend. The best possible way to revert the damage done from such crises is to create a new company with new staff and new values. Only then can you regain customer loyalty. 

preparing before crisis

Natural Crisis

As it is clear from the name, natural crises occur on the part of nature itself and are inevitable. For instance, an earthquake, a tornado, or a hurricane are all natural disasters that can destroy an entire organization. Many companies can quickly revolver from natural crises if they have the budget for it. The most recent natural crisis to hit the organizations is the pandemic that has completely turned work lives upside down. 

Strategies for Crisis Communication

Prepare Proactively 

No matter what the crisis may be, you can always prepare for it beforehand. For instance, to prevent someone from hacking into your systems, you can invest in security software that helps avoid that. Similarly to avoid a natural disaster, you can add up some safe places inside the office to save lives. 

Although Johnson & Johnson did a great job at managing the crisis, it did not have a proactive public affairs program before it. The only media relations engaged in by Johnson & Johnson was in the advertising and marketing area. The only way they came to know about the case was through a reporter. Had they prepared for something like that beforehand the whole crisis may have taken on a different form in the public’s perception.

Social Media Strategy 

Social media is a great tool when it comes to spreading the word. In any case of crisis, your organization can efficiently use the social media tool to make people aware of any emergency and the steps they need to take. However, you need to be careful about what gets posted on social media about your organization because one viral negative video about it can lead to a bad reputation for your company.

Prepare Someone to Speak on Your Behalf

If a mistake is made on the part of you, the upper management, or the organization as a whole, the best way to make amends is to apologize for it. To do that, prepare a spokesperson that can speak on your behalf and apologize for any wrongdoings. For instance, the CEO of the company can do this job efficiently. Doing so will help your organization get back on track and will help make your mistakes look manageable.

James Burke held several press conferences and attended shows to clear the negative impression in the public’s mind and the strategy worked. 

Act Quick

Sometimes, a crisis can be stopped in time at an individual level before it reaches a fully blown crisis state. One way to prevent that is by taking into account what can be done in the initial phases and then taking measures to stop it. This is something James Burke did to halt the damage. 

Gathering Feedback

Not every time will an emergency be making headlines, sometimes a crisis may be occurring without you knowing it. Therefore, gathering feedback from time to time is also a great way to prevent crises. It gives you insights into what’s going on in your organization, what troubles workers are facing, and what are some recommendations to help you become better. 

Additionally, gaining feedback from customers is also a great way of knowing what they think of your business. Not only does it help you spot the shortcomings but also gives you the chance of improvement by their negative criticism.

Last Word

Crisis preparedness is important and communicating the crisis is even more so. Although Johnson & Johnson wasn’t prepared to face the crisis, they stopped the damage to a great extent just by communicating in time and acting quickly. However, preparedness prevents an organization’s downfall right in time and helps minimize the damage. Companies need to build a careful and responsible plan that can help during crises.

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