An Australian PR professor has found enough chinks in the Tower of Spin that is the Tylenol recall story to bring it down after a 28-year run.
Why it has taken someone from Australia to do this speaks volumes about the politics involved in what is the "gold standard of spin" rather than the "gold standard of crisis management" as the April 10 Economist referred to it.
This is a tale of murder—the 1986 murder of 23-year-old Diane Elsworth of Peekskill, N.Y., the daughter of a New York state trooper. Johnson & Johnson didn't "pull the trigger" but it supplied the "gun"—Tylenol capsules that could be pulled apart and spiked.
Prof. Tony Jaques of RMIT University, Melbourne, has noted (link, PDF) that J&J should not have been marketing "demonstrably vulnerable capsules" when "tamper-proof" tablets were available.
Also raised in the article was the thought that J&J's decision to keep selling the capsules was based "purely on financial reasons."
Yes—the real J&J "credo" is worship of the Almighty Dollar.
You never saw a picture of Elsworth nor of the seven victims of Tylenol poisonings in 1982. This was part of J&J's drive to de-humanize them and put all stress on what a great job it did with the press and public on the original murders.
We believe it told the families of the victims to lay low or it would fight them in court for decades. It did nearly that with the 1982 victims, battling them for nine years to 1991, settling only the day before a trial was to start.
This was a horrible way to treat the families—blocking closure.
Will the Real J&J Stand Up?
J&J's image as a caring supplier of baby products is at odds with the way it behaves in the marketplace. It practices old-style harsh, cut-throat capitalism.
Although claiming it had nothing to do with the original murders, refusing to hold a press conference, the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 8, 1982 noted that the company “was known as an aggressive, even predatory marketer that frequently used litigation to stymie competitors” and had “developed a reputation for sometimes riding roughshod over inventors and small entrepreneurial firms form which it often buys technology.”
A press conference would have explored such behavior.
A federal jury in 1981 ordered J&J to pay $93 million to three Minnesota businessmen who said J&J bought their electronic painkiller device but didn’t market it because it competed with J&J’s analgesic products.
Two J&J units yesterday agreed to pay $81 million to resolve criminal and civil charges that they promoted epilepsy drug Topamax for uses that were not approved by the FDA.
The FDA said J&J paid doctors to speak at meetings and dinners about prescribing the drug for unapproved uses and doses.
Reporters Treated Poorly
Karen Ryan, then with ABC-TV, said that up until the 1982 Tylenol crisis, J&J had been a very difficult company to deal with.
It wouldn’t give reporters “the time of day and getting anything out of them was like pulling teeth…camera crews would assemble at J&J only to be told at the last minute that J&J had changed its mind,” she said. (link, sub req'd)
This website’s experience with J&J is that it has not spoken to us on any subject for more than a decade. Its corporate policy is not to discuss the Tylenol incidents with anyone.
It appears that the U.S. PR establishment and even the press are simply too cowed by the $63 billion Johnson & Johnson to do anything but watch this charade grow bigger and bigger year after year.
Only J&J CEO Bill Weldon (pictured) can step up and do something. The “buck” stops at the CEO’s desk.
Burke Regretted Re-introduction
Jim Burke, CEO in 1982, rushed Tylenol capsules back onto the market in six weeks, a move that cost Elsworth her life. Burke then said he was sorry the capsules were ever brought back. It took another week for J&J to swear off selling anything in capsules in the future.
The absurdity of “tamper-resistant” becomes obvious if applied to some other products. Would anyone buy a can of soup that was “botulism-resistant?” Or purchase a car whose brakes “resisted” locking rather than were 100% lock-proof?
Would any police force buy “bullet-resistant” vests? How about using a parachute that opened “virtually every time?”
Elsworth lost her life because, as FBI tests showed, the bottle that contained the poisoned capsules had been opened and cleverly resealed.
It took the FBI two weeks of tests to determine that. So how was Elsworth to fathom that in a bottle she just grabbed from the shelf?
Jaques rightly contends that the myths surrounding the recall, which J&J has allowed to grow, are doing a disservice to the PR industry which would be better studying the facts surrounding more recent crises.
J&J itself shares heavy blame for this fiasco.
It could have said something about the most famous plug of all for alleged quick action by the company in 1982.
That occurred in the movie, “The Insider,” in which actor Russell Crowe says Burke pulled Tylenols “off the shelves in every store right across America instantly.”
Surely it knew of this line in the movie and was aware of its falsity.
Not only is the J&J code shown to be worthless, a bag of hot air with no substance when the chips are down, but also the code of the Arthur W. Page Society, to which Jordan belongs, and the code of the PR Society.
Page calls on its members to “tell the truth” and we don’t see that happening here.
Complicit PRSA Should Make Correction
PRSA was at the forefront of those flogging the Tylenol myth back in 1982. When the recall lost in its Silver Anvil category, partly because Hygrade showed more creativity in a crisis it had, the PRS board created a special Anvil for Tylenol.
We believe J&J, upon learning of its failure to win an Anvil, went to the Society and said “Create a special one.” So for the first time in its history, the Society came up with a “best in show” for the Anvils.
J&J was one of the most regular advertisers in PRSA media for years and in 1998 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $2.6 million to the “Kids in a Drug-Free Society” started by the PRSA Foundation and the Partnership for a Drug-Free Society.
If it lives up to its code, the Society should now move to correct the full page send-up of the Tylenol recall that appeared in the March 2008 Tactics.
For openers, there was no “immediate” or “quick” withdrawal of Tylenol capsules. The Jaques article points out that the recall was not ordered until five days later.
The Tactics article said “J&J’s handling of Tylenol-related deaths…has become an enduring example of crisis management done right.”
The code says, “A member shall act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.”