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Public Relations Case Study: The Tylenol Murders

Updated on August 1, 2015

Describe the actions of Johnson & Johnson to conduct open, honest, and transparent public relations in the midst of terrible tragedy.

Consider the following questions as you construct your initial post:

  • How may public perception have differed if Johnson & Johnson had waited and not recalled the product after the first reports of Tylenol-related deaths?
  • What lessons can be learned from the manner in which Johnson & Johnson handled the public relations aspects of these tragedies?
  • How has the media environment changed since 1982 and 1986? If a similar crisis happened today, how would social media and digital communications help or harm Johnson & Johnson’s public relations efforts?

After almost 100 years of being the epitome of a well-managed, highly profitable, and tight-lipped consumer products manufacturer tragedy struck Johnson & Johnson Company of New Brunswick, New Jersey on the morning of September 30, 1982 (Seitel, 2014, p.42). On that morning Johnson & Johnson Company discovered that their extra strength Tylenol had been used as a murder weapon to take the lives of their consumers. In order to prevent public panic the Johnson & Johnson Company made they key decision to open their doors to the media in an attempt to get as much information as possible out to the public. The Johnson & Johnson Company even went as far as to retract an earlier statement when they discovered that the previous information that they had provided the public with about the cyanide was false. This proved to be a good decision because while the company did experience a brief embarrassment over the incident it also helped their credibility; for this action the company was hailed for their openness (Seitel, 2014, p.43). In addition to be open and honest about the incident to the public the company also recalled the entire lot of extra strength Tylenol bottles that were associated with the murders and when five days later a copycat struck in California the company recalled all the extra strength Tylenol bottles. This recall cost the company more than $100 million; the company also suspended all advertising and posted a $100,000 reward for the killer(s).

The massive recall that the Johnson & Johnson Company instigated at no cost to the public helped put the company in a positive light. The survey that Johnson & Johnson commissioned found that 87% of Tylenol users realized that the maker of extra strength Tylenol was not responsible for the deaths while 61% still said they were not likely to buy the extra strength Tylenol capsules in the future (Seitel, 2014, p.43). If Johnson & Johnson had waited and not recalled the extra strength Tylenol after the first reports of Tylenol-related deaths, the public may have viewed the company differently; more people may have decided not to use the extra strength Tylenol if the company had not recalled the bottles and more people would have died as a result. A lack of action could have resulted in the public perceiving that Johnson & Johnson were at fault. The Johnson & Johnson Company’s public relations management of the extra strength Tylenol crisis serves as an example to all companies and organizations on how to manage their public relations in an open, honest, and ethical manner. The lesson that other companies should take away from the crisis is that it is important to get in front of a crisis, to keep the public informed even if it means retracting previously given information, and to make the situation right even if it means recalling a product at the cost of the company.

The world and the level of technology have evolved greatly since the incidents that occurred in 1982 and 1986. If a similar crisis occurred today, social media and digital communications would play a big role in such a crisis in both positive and negative ways. Social media could help a company to get information to the public faster, it could allow the company to update the public more often, and it could allow people to communicate concerns to the company. Social media could also harm the company because it allows people to instantly communicate with each other; for example if one person’s relative died because of an extra strength Tylenol then that person might go on social media and post that an extra strength Tylenol just killed their relative. This information could reach a large number of people very quickly and could cause massive panic and hate towards the company before the company even knew about the incident. This would harm the company because it could potentially rob the company of a chance to get in front of the incident.

References

Seitel, F. (2014). The History and Growth of Public Relations. In The Practice of Public Relations(12th ed.). Harlow: Prentice Hall.

  • Provide examples of other avenues that Johnson & Johnson could have explored instead of the massive recall of 83,000 bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol. Do you think those approaches would have been as effective? In addition, examine the Tylenol website and appraise the information. How does Johnson & Johnson demonstrate care and safety for its customers?

There is only one method that comes to mind for me that Johnson & Johnson could have explored instead of the massive recall of Extra Strength Tylenol. The first one that comes to mind is they could have hired a lab to go to each store and test the bottles of extra strength Tylenol for cyanide. If the lab found any cyanide contaminated pills at a store then Johnson & Johnson would recall the pills from that store. This avenue could have cut down on the number of bottles of extra strength Tylenol that were recalled, but it would have also cost the company a decent amount of money to hire a lab to undertake all that testing. I think this approach would have been effective in the short term, but there would also need to be a way to prevent the killer from coming back a contaminating the bottles after they had been checked. When I went to the Tylenol website the first thing I noticed was the kid’s dosing instructions and the responsible relief tab. Both of these show that the company cares for their customers because they want to make sure no one is taking an unsafe dosage or not informed on how to use their medicine safely and responsibly.

The only other way I think the company could have reacted to prevent more deaths is that they could have hired a lab to go to each store and test the bottles of extra strength Tylenol for cyanide. If the lab found any cyanide contaminated pills at a store then Johnson & Johnson would recall the pills from that store. This could have reduced the cost of the recall, but I don’t know how much it would cost for them to have paid for a lab to test that many bottles. It is kind of ironic I have always used Tylenol for headaches and yet I had never gone to their website before nor had I ever heard of the Tylenol murder before this class. At the top of the Tylenol website page they have a drop down menu with numerous links to information about safety and dosing. This tab alone shows that the company cares about the safety of their customers.

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