Prof. Tony Jaques of Australia, writing in the December Issues Outcomes, has reiterated his criticisms of Johnson & Johnson’s PR in the wake of the seven Tylenol deaths in 1982.
J&J’s PR tactics after the deaths in 1982 and another death by Tylenol in 1986 were criticized by Jaques in an article in the online PR Journal of PR Society of America in 2010.
The 12th edition this year of The Practice of Public Relations by Fraser Seitel devotes four pages to J&J’s PR in the wake of the two incidents and says they are “arguably the two most important cases in the history of the practice of PR.”
Numerous publications, including the New York Times, Fortune, The Economist and Christian Science Monitor have long hailed J&J’s response to the murders in terms such as the “gold standard of PR” and “wrote the book on crisis-handling.”
Jaques, who has taught at RMIT University, Melbourne, returned to the subject upon reading further praise for the handling of the Tylenol murders in connection with the death Oct. 17 of J&J VP-PR Lawrence Foster.
No Immediate Recall
“Foster’s death predictably led to the media rehashing the crisis and repeating the common claim that J&J’s ‘prompt and effective response’ represented a gold standard of what to do.”
It is probably true, adds Jaques, that the origin of crisis management as a modern discipline can be traced back to the Tylenol case.
“Yet there is now real doubt whether the handling of the crisis itself has anything useful to say to today’s practitioners,” he adds.
He notes it took J&J five days to order a full nationwide recall (following a series of limited recalls).
Such a response today would “more likely not attract praise for promptness but criticism for delay,” he says.
Furthermore, he adds, J&J “deliberately used the name of its manufacturing subsidiary (McNeil) in an apparent attempt to shield the corporate brand.”
The relaunch of the Tylenol capsules six weeks later in “tamper-resistant packaging” gained “more praise for J&J” but resulted in the death of 23-year-old Diane Elsroth via poisoned Tylenol capsules four years later.
“After another delayed recall, the company finally replaced the vulnerable capsules with much safer solid caplets,” writes Jaques, adding that CEO James Burke “later admitted it had been a mistake to reintroduce the capsules and he was sorry they had delayed the switch.”