Do “classic” crisis cases really matter today?

Case studies can be great to help understand issue and crisis management.  But a recent death has renewed interest in whether the notorious Tylenol crisis really is the “gold standard” it is sometimes labelled.

Mid October saw the passing of 88-year-old Lawrence Foster, the former VP of PR at Johnson & Johnson during the 1982 crisis, which arose when seven people in Chicago died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol painkiller capsules.

Foster’s death predictably led to the media rehashing the crisis and repeating the common claim that J&J’s “prompt and effective response” represented a gold standard of what to do.

It is probably true, as some experts claim, that the origin of crisis management as a modern discipline can be traced back to the Tylenol case.  Yet there is now real doubt whether the handling of the crisis itself has anything useful to say to today’s practitioners.*

Following the seven deaths in Chicago, J&J initiated a series of limited recalls, but it took five days to implement a full nationwide recall.  In today’s 24/7 news cycle it is more likely that such a response would not attract praise for promptness but criticism for delay.  Furthermore, during the recall J&J deliberately used the name of their manufacturing subsidiary in an apparent attempt to shield the corporate brand.

The product was relaunched in new tamper-resistant packaging, gaining more praise for J&J. But four years later there was a further US death from cyanide-poisoned Tylenol (and the safety seal was unbroken). After another delayed recall, the company finally replaced vulnerable capsules with much safer solid caplets. CEO James Burke later admitted it had been a mistake to reintroduce the capsules and he was sorry they had delayed the switch.

So how relevant is this classic case today?  The answer has to be:  Great for demonstrating the persuasive power of PR but not so great for crisis response.  Moreover the company appeared to largely ignore the value of effective crisis planning. During the 1982 crisis they admitted they had no formal crisis plan and were guided by the Company Credo, first written in 1943. Yet in 2000, contrary to modern practice, it was reported the company appeared to STILL believe no special training was necessary for executives to prepare for a crisis.

So what has J&J learned?  It’s hard to tell. But since 2010 the company has been badly damaged by a catalogue of crises, including high profile manufacturing faults, including Tylenol, corporate fines and big recall costs.  The most recent recall was just weeks ago.

The Americans  John Pauly and Leise Hutchison once quipped that published case studies are often “a fiction written after the fact, invented to make the practice of public relations more real.”  Now that J&J’s Lawrence Foster has been laid to rest, maybe it’s time to do the same for the mythologised Tylenol “gold standard.”

*For more on the Tylenol Case seeLearning from Past Crisis: do iconic cases help or hinder?” Tony Jaques (2009) Public Relations Journal 3(1).

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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