Crisis Management Tylenol Lessons on Product Safety Resonate Today

By Comerford, Michael Sean | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

Crisis Management Tylenol Lessons on Product Safety Resonate Today


Comerford, Michael Sean, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Michael Sean Comerford Daily Herald Business Writer

mcomerford@@dailyherald.com

Seven murders caused by cyanide-laced Tylenol 25 years ago occurred within a few miles - Chicago and its suburbs - yet the ramifications to American businesses and retail products reached far wider.

The ensuing financial repercussions for Tylenol-maker Johnson & Johnson convinced the U.S. retail packaging industry to ramp up consumer safety technologies.

Safety seals on foods and medicines were not common at the time.

On the crisis management side, Johnson & Johnson's rapid response, show of concern, reforms and restitution are credited with saving the product and inspiring public relations experts for years to come.

"You could probably point to that incident as the birth of crisis management," said Scott Farrell, managing director of Chicago-based public relations firm GolinHarris. "And it's hard to buy anything these days that doesn't have a child-proof cap or a tamper-resistant bottle."

In three days in the fall of 1982, seven Chicago-area residents died of cyanide poisoning from tainted Tylenol tablets. Nobody has been charged with the crime.

When the first deaths in Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights were discovered and authorities later realized the connection, the scope of the poisonings was unknown and the worst had to be assumed.

Far from denying its culpability, McNeil Consumer Products, the maker of Tylenol, pulled an estimated 31 million bottles from retail shelves nationwide as a precaution.

The move reportedly cost the company more than $100 million. A recall on that scale had never been seen before in retail history and made an impression on consumers, Farrell said.

McNeil's parent, Johnson & Johnson, responded quickly with press conferences to keep the public informed throughout the crisis.

When authorities determined someone had taken the bottles off the shelves and contaminated them before placing them back on shelves, Johnson & Johnson could have blamed the perpetrator and attempted to go back to business as usual. Instead, it made significant changes before reintroducing Tylenol. …

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