James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson during the 1982 murders of seven people via cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, died Sept. 28 in New Jersey. He was 87.
Burke is a vaunted figure in PR case studies and his leadership during the Tylenol crisis was mentioned in the first line of his New York Times obituary on Oct. 1, which noted his actions are “regarded as a textbook example of how to handle a public relations crisis.”
Burke, who received the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 2000 for his later work with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, retired from J&J in 1989, credited with branching the company out into products like shampoo and medical devices.
J&J said company sales grew more than threefold during his tenure to $9 billion.
“While his accomplishments were significant and shaped Johnson & Johnson as a global, health care concern, Burke’s career will likely be best remembered for his steady leadership of the company during the Tylenol poisonings in 1982 and 1986,” the company said in a statement.
His death comes days after the 30th anniversary of the Tylenol murders.
The reality of Burke’s handling of the crisis, however, contrasts sharply with an embellished version that has prevailed in some PR studies.
Burke and J&J are often credited with acting immediately, but the lauded recall of all Tylenol from store shelves was actually ordered six days after the first deaths were announced. By then, many stores had already pulled the product from shelves.
After a New York woman was killed by a poisoned Tylenol capsule four years later, Burke and J&J said they would stop selling products in capsules. It was at a news conference announcing this move in 1986 that Burke apologized when asked by a reporter if he was sorry.
The narrative of immediate action which was touted by the company went mainstream in the 2000 film “The Insider,” when tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, played by actor Russell Crowe, said Burke acted in an “instant.”
Crowe, right, in 'The Insider.'
“James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, when he found out that some lunatic had put poison in Tylenol bottles, he didn’t argue with the FDA, he didn’t wait for the FDA to tell him, he just pulled Tylenol off the shelves in every store right across American instantly,” Crowe’s character said in the film. Burke “would not “allow his company to put on the shelf a product that might hurt people…” Wigand added.
In a news release announcing Burke’s death, J&J included a quote from former Capital Cities / ABC chairman and CEO Thomas Murphy, a Harvard classmate of Burke’s: “Jim Burke believed 100 percent in the Johnson & Johnson Credo, as he exemplified when he took Tylenol off the shelves (in 1982 and 1986).”
J&J settled out of court with the victims’ families in 1991, a week before a trial was to begin.
Tylenol regained its market share a year later, although J&J spent an estimated $300M on advertising and PR for the brand, according to Time magazine.
Burson-Marsteller handled the crisis and aftermath. The PR Society gave the firm and its client a special Silver Anvil Award in 1983 after it lost in the crisis category to Hygrade Hotdogs, which used PR to recover from a tampering problem.
The Tylenol murders have not been solved, although the FBI re-opened the case in 2009.