The death on Oct. 17 of Lawrence Foster, 88, former VP-PR of Johnson & Johnson, has touched off a slew of false references to how J&J reacted in the wake of seven people dying in 1982 after taking poisoned Tylenol Extra Strength capsules.

Obits are laced with words such as "immediate," "gold standard of crisis communications," "forthright press relations," "concise and rapid response" and "customer safety first," none of which are true.

ellsroth
Tylenol victim Diane Elsroth in a clip from the 2/26/1986 Daily Herald.

What is true is that because of J&J’s quest for profits and its inability to stop selling its flawed, most profitable product, 23-year-old Diane Elsroth  of Peekskill, N.Y., died miserably on Feb. 17, 1986 after taking Tylenol capsules that had been spiked with cyanide just like they were in 1982.

Only after her death, which should never have happened, did J&J pull the capsules from the market. CEO James Burke, addressing a press conference at the National Press Club Feb. 19, 1986, was asked if he was sorry that J&J ever re-introduced the capsules. "Yes, indeed, I am," he replied.

Many pharmacists, including those we knew in New York, would not sell anything in capsules because they could be easily pulled apart and spiked.

No Withdrawal; Burked Dined with Students

The oft-repeated claim that J&J "immediately" pulled Tylenols off the shelves is false because executives "held off on the huge recall through the first weekend after the deaths," says an essay by Tamara Kaplan of Penn State titled "The Tylenol Crisis: How Effective PR Saved Johnson & Johnson."

An announcement went out immediately telling people not to consume any Tylenol products.

Where was Burke on that weekend (Oct. 1-3, 1982)? He spent it with his son and his son’s friends at Middlebury College, Vermont, asking for their advice.

An obit on Burke by Katie Thomas in the Oct. 1, 2012 New York Times, says: "Three days into the first Tylenol poisonings in 1982, he (Burke) traveled to Vermont to visit his son for parents’ weekend at Middlebury College. His son said he had assumed that his father would be too busy to make the trip but Mr. Burke insisted and took eight of his son’s friends out to dinner. He sat and asked each of them, ‘If you were me, what would you do,’ James Burke, who is an independent film producer, recalled on Monday. He asked everybody he could think of what would be the right thing to do, and then took what made sense to him and his values."

The "right thing to do" was never sell anything again in capsules that could be easily doctored.

The Thomas obit did note that Burke in 1986 said, "Yes, indeed I am," when asked at the NPC press conference whether he was sorry the company had not acted sooner to switch from capsules to solid caplets.

The obit does not mention that causing the switch was the death of Elsroth. J&J fought the families of the 1982 poisonings in court for nine years before making a settlement the day before a trial was to begin.

J&J, well aware of the danger of selling anything in capsules but also aware that none of its competitors would switch to the safe tablet form (which dissolves just as quickly in the stomach), no doubt had a "safe packaging" scheme ready should anything happen.

"Tamper-Resistant" Packaging Debuts

Larry Foster
Foster
So J&J, which didn’t hold a press conference after the seven Chicago murders, suddenly decided to hold a teleconference Nov. 11, 1982 at New Brunswick, N.J., when it wanted to tout what it called its "tamper-resistant" packaging.

This was classic PR spin and misdirection—focus attention on the packaging when the real culprit was the spikable capsules. Misdirection is a staple of magicians.

Would any police department buy "bullet-resistant" vests? Would anyone buy soup that is "botulism resistant" or jump out of a plane with a parachute that opens "almost all the time." The public was being asked to swallow an illogical pill.

J&J did not want to have a press conference after the initial murders because there would have been many questions on how the company delivers Tylenols to stores.

Scott Bartz, a J&J employee from 2000-07, in his 499-page The Tylenol Mafiadescribed the many hands that Tylenol’s main ingredient, acetaminophen, goes through on its way from J&J to stores.

Many Hands in Tylenol "Pie"

Some Tylenol was shipped in bulk in fiber drums (powder or capsules) to repackagers who bottled it and packaged it. Cartons containing 72 Tylenol bottles were shipped to distribution centers where they were opened by warehouse workers who put individual bottles into "picking" machines where they were filled. The bottles were handled again by the picking machine operators who filled orders for individual stores. Another handling was by workers who boxed the items for the individual stores. Rack jobbers/merchandisers then restocked the shelves, yet another handling.

None of the stories either in 1982 or thereafter ever discussed this serpentine route of acetaminophen to store shelves.

Bartz says the "smoking gun" implicating someone inside J&J as the culprit or culprits is the death of Lynn Reiner, 26, who had just given birth. She got her Tylenols from the hospital dispensary. No insane person was able to breach that security. The Reiner family is continuing its quest to unseal papers connected with the murders.

J&J Had Many Enemies

J&J, according to the Oct. 8, 1982 Wall  Street Journal, had many enemies. J&J was known as "an aggressive, even predatory marketer that frequently used litigation to stymie competitors." It was known for "sometimes riding roughshod over inventors and small entrepreneurial firms from which it often buys technology."

A federal grand jury awarded $94 million to three business owners who said J&J bought their electronic pain killer and then failed to develop it. J&J appealed the decision. J&J consists of more than 250 companies that have been acquired through the years. A factor behind many sell-outs is that a small target company risks battling a much bigger competitor and eventually going out of business.

Possible enemies of J&J would have been a topic at any press conference.

Elsroth Death Needs Investigating

Details surrounding the death of Elsroth raise many doubts and questions.

The FBI at first determined that the poisoned capsules were in a bottle that had not been tampered with. X-rays showed no signs that the bottles had been invaded—no cuts, no holes and no needle marks. There was no evidence that the plastic shrink-wrap had been removed and then reheated, re-shrunk and re-applied. There was no indication that the aluminum foil seals laminated to the lips of the bottles had been removed and re-applied. The only adhesive on the lips of the bottles was the adhesive that the repackager had applied. The aluminum-foil seals had not been torn or cut and there were no scrapes or nicks on the lips or necks of the bottles to indicate a sharp knife had been used to remove the aluminum-foil seals.

The Washington Post on Feb. 14, 1986 said invading the plastic bottle inside would have involved cutting it and "melting the cutout back into place after tampering with the capsules." It said the FBI ruled this out. The NYT on Feb. 19, 1986 had a two-column headline that said, "FBI Finds No Tampering with Packaging of Tylenol."

However, the FBI on Feb. 26, 1986 suddenly reversed itself and said that "previously undetected signs of tampering have now been discovered using sophisticated scientific examination…it was possible to invade the bottles after packing was complete without detection through conventional means of examination."

FBI refused to provide further details. Bartz wrote that it could not show "proof that the packaging had been tampered with nor how it could have been done."

Foster Gives Version to Students

Foster, who received the Gold Anvil of PR Society of America in 1989 in recognition of PR for Tylenol, which had won a special Silver Anvil of the Society in 1983, said in an interview with his alma mater, Penn State, that he knew how the bottles were invaded in 1986.

The murderer, he said, "managed to cut through the bottom of the plastic container bottle, remove the capsules, put the cyanide capsule in, and they managed to get the piece back in the bottle and get it on the shelf so it was undetectable. In other words, you don’t have to go through any of the safety seals at the top of the bottle."

Bartz found this explanation to be preposterous—"completely false and unbelievable" because it conflicted with what both J&J and the FBI have been saying for many years.

Foster left out the problems of invading the box sealed with glue that could only be dislodged by tearing it, said Bartz.

J&J’s lost its bid for a 1994 PR Society Silver Anvil in the "Emergency PR" category for its PR on the Tylenol murders. The Anvil went to Hygrade Food Products and its PR firm, PR Assocs. of Detroit, for PR following the discovery of contamination in some of Hygrade’s hotdogs. The PR Society then invented a new award—the Anvil of Anvils—and gave it to J&J. One factor that helped to eliminate J&J as a contender was its refusal to provide budget figures. Anvils are awarded partly because a major impact is made on small budget.

Beverly Beltaire, president of PRA, said Anvils co-chair Don Hill called her and said, "You beat Tylenol…your campaign had so many creative angles and was done for so much less."

No "Immediate" Recall

The biggest myth surrounding the 1982 Tylenol murders is that J&J ordered an "immediate" recall of Tylenols throughout the U.S. The recall was not made until at least five days later and only after recalls to two Chicago-area lots had been made.

Among the worst purveyors of this myth was the 2000 movie "The Insider" in which Russell Crowe, playing ex-J&J employee Jeff Wigand, tells "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, that Burke, after the murders, "just pulled Tylenol off the shelves in every store right across America instantly."

J&J actually decided to sit on the matter for the weekend after the murders were discovered on Thursday and Friday. A warning went out but product was not pulled from shelves which happened the next Tuesday.

NYT Swallowed Many J&J Pills

NYT has a long record of writing positively about J&J’s handling of the Tylenol murders.

"Tylenol made a hero of Johnson & Johnson: The recall that started them all," was the headline on a story in the March 22, 2002 NYT by Judith Rehak. It praises Burke for his "forthrightness in dealing with the media" and says J&J only two months later (it was actually six weeks) put Tylenol back on the market in "tamper-proof packaging." J&J only referred to "tamper-resistant" packaging.

The PR on Tylenol was called "Exhibit A in the lesson book on forthright crisis management" by Peter Goodman in the Aug. 21, 2010 NYT feature that ran nearly three pages.

J&J was praised for its "fast and adept" handling of the 1982 Tylenol murders in an article a May 3, 2010 article by NYT reporter Natasha Singer.

Others in the Tylenol Fan Club

Harvard Business School in 1989 praised J&J for its "immediate and spontaneous response to the press in handling the 1982 murders. "All available information was given to the press so that the public could be informed and protected, said the Harvard Business School.

The Economist of April 10, 2010 said J&J, "without hesitation," pulled Tylenols from the market and its actions set "the gold standard of crisis management."

The Christian Science Monitor said Jan. 15, 2010 that was J&J did in 1982 "is still regarded as a shining example of corporate social responsibility."

Fortune magazine on May 28, 2007 hailed J&J/Tylenol as the "gold standard in crisis control" in a full page article by Jia Lynn Yant.

Tactics of the PR Society praised J&J in a full page in 2007 for providing "an enduring example of crisis management done right."

J&J, which offered an award of $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the murder or murderers after both the 1982 and 1986 murders, was a regular full-page advertiser in publications of the PR Society. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, named after the longtime head of J&J, in 1999 donated $2.6 million to Kids in a Drug Free Society, a coalition between the PR Society Foundation and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which was headed by Burke.