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Case Study: Tylenol Crisis

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol capsules in various pharmacies around Chicago were tampered with and laced with cyanide poison. Consequently, seven people died due to poisoning after taking the drugs. This incident became a crisis for the company, working hard to save its reputation. However, the company recovered from the crisis and reintroduced the drug into the market, where it was well received. In analyzing this case, it would be essential to understand the steps that the company took or failed to take to mitigate the crisis and what it did right and wrong. In addition, I will describe what I would do differently if I could make critical decisions for an organization.


In mitigating the crisis, Johnson and Johnson took various steps. First, it recalled all its products from stores, a move that cost the company millions of dollars. The recall protected the public from more harm as the company sought to ensure the safety of its products. It also painted the company positively in the public eye, as it came across as one that put human lives above profits. Additionally, the company stopped the production of Tylenol and related advertising and cautioned the public to stop its use until it determined the extent of the tampering. Without suspects to blame, the public outcry should have been directed at the company, blaming it for the mess. However, by quickly recalling the products and urging people not to consume them, Johnson and Johnson came across as victims of the crime, just like the affected people. Thus, instead of demonizing the company, the public sympathized with it.

Second, after the initial news of the poisoning, the company only recalled Tylenol in Chicago pharmacies. However, in determining the extent of the tampering, Johnson & Johnson came across two more bottles, indicating how vulnerable the product was. Consequently, in the spirit of being safe than sorry, the company recalled Tylenol products countrywide, an expensive loss for the company. At this point, the company was no longer worried about its profits but the public’s well-being. The news of the poisoning was a crisis event. Consequently, Johnson & Johnson quickly recognized the crisis and started responding and containing it (Coombs, 2019). The recall was part of the crisis containment, as it strove to ensure that the crisis did not spread further by more deaths or regions beyond Chicago.

Third, Johnson & Johnson communicated effectively with its stakeholders during the crisis. Communication is an essential element during a crisis (Coombs, 2019). Though the company did not engage the press much before the crisis, it now recognized its value. It used the media to communicate its strategy during the crisis. For instance, the company used news media to issue a national public alert cautioning the public against the use of Tylenol. Coombs (2019) notes that “skilled crisis managers communicate to stakeholders through channels other than the news media and Internet, such as telephone, direct mail, or email” (169). Cognizant of the need to have more direct contact with the various stakeholders, Johnson & Johnson established a toll-free hotline, 1-800, for consumers to call with any concerns and inquiries regarding the safety of Tylenol. In addition, the company launched a toll-free line for news media to call and receive pre-recorded updates on the crisis.

Fourth, the company developed a triple-tamper seal-the first of its kind in the industry-which made it challenging for anyone to tamper with the products. In addition, the company introduced random inspections before the product was shipped off to retailers. These rectification strategies prevented the occurrence of a similar crisis in the future. The company announced these strategies in a press conference at its headquarters, thus allowing the media to popularize its preventive approach. Thanks to these mitigating steps, Johnson & Johnson reintroduced Tylenol into the market and regained its spot as the top seller painkiller.

However sound the company’s mitigation of the crisis was, it initially ignored the media as a critical stakeholder. Instead of directly engaging the media, the company resorted to an advertising-based response, which earned it a lot of criticism. This approach was due to the company’s lack of media relations, which never engaged the media. Nonetheless, the company quickly redeemed itself through its CEO’s direct messages to the press.

What the Company Did Right and Wrong

Johnson & Johnson did two things right. The first is that the company accepted the crisis and was forthright about it. Amid the negative publicity from the media, the company’s Chairman, James Burke, recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol. He did this at a time when recalling products was unpopular. Instead, companies had mastered the art of blaming uncontrollable external forces. However, Johnson & Johnson accepted responsibility, which paved the way for fixing the crisis. Consequently, this earned the company sympathy and improved its reputation in the eyes of stakeholders (Coombs, 2019). The second thing the company did right was remediation and rectification. It offered counseling and compensation to the affected families even though it was not directly responsible. It also developed a triple tamper-proof seal to prevent a similar incident from recurring.

Nonetheless, the company did one thing wrong-it committed a quickness mistake, which often occurs when a spokesperson does not have enough background information. When a journalist asked the spokesperson if cyanide was used in the product’s manufacturing facility, he answered negatively. This response was inaccurate since the testing laboratories in the facility used cyanide (Coombs, 2019). This quick mistake resulted from insufficient information, a gap traced to not having a crisis communication plan (CCP). Johnson & Johnson did not have a CCP in place, and amid the crisis, it referred to old company guidelines. Consequently, it could not keep up with the fast response time rates necessary during a crisis. Such speed comes with the risk of inaccuracies, which Johnson & Johnson learned the hard way. The company was lucky that the news reporter was more interested in the actual story other than sideshows. If the interest were otherwise, they would have worsened the situation by showing the company as incompetent. Consequently, Johnson & Johnson would have a crisis within a crisis.

What I Would Do Differently

If I could make critical decisions for an organization, I would do three things differently. First, I would ensure that the organization has a CCP. The CCP would be instrumental in ensuring the smooth flow of information during a crisis, thereby preventing inconsistency, which can affect the company’s reputation and create a worse crisis. I would also ensure the CC is updated to meet emerging crisis communication challenges. Second, I would have good relations with the media. Good media relations would ensure that the press willingly spread my organization’s message during a crisis. It also means that the organization would be on top of relevant happenings in our regions and areas of interest. Unlike Johnson & Johnson, which learned of the crisis event from news reporters calling to seek a statement, my organization would have known of the event long before the media started calling.


Coombs, W. T. (2019). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing, and responding (5th ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.


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