Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol murders of 1982 and 1986, called a "shining example" of ethical behavior at a PRSA/NY panel Sept. 8, got more praise at national's ethics webinar yesterday.


Maria Sonin, associate director, communications & marketing, Ethics Officer Assn., Waltham, Mass., told of J&J's actions after seven people died in Chicago Sept. 29, 1982 after taking poisoned Tylenol capsules. Monday is the 32nd anniversary of the murders.

She said the poisonings were done by "a madman" tampering with the capsules, a popular view of what happened but which has been challenged by former employee Scott Bartz. His book, The Tylenol Mafia, presents evidence that the spiking of the capsules took place while they were in the J&J distribution chain.

Since "one or two" more bottles of poisoned Tylenols were found, J&J "recalled every single bottle of Tylenols at that time in the U.S.," Sonin said, adding it worked "six months of double shifts" to create new packaging for the bottles.

The Bartz book estimates there were more than 50 bottles of poisoned Tylenols in Chicago area stories based on the probability of seven people dying in the same day from contaminated capsules.

J&J introduced its new "tamper-resistant" packaging on Nov. 23, 1982 with a 30-city teleconference from New York. There was no press conference of any type after the murders. The company began running commercials on Oct. 24 promoting the upcoming launch of the new packaging.

Sonin said what chairman James Burke did in 1982 got him "hailed as a hero and people have written about that again and again and again."

Schubert Praised J&J

Michael Schubert, senior executive of Ruder Finn, told the Society's New York chapter Sept. 8 that J&J's behavior in 1982 was a "shining example" of ethical corporate behavior.

Sonin contrasted J&J's actions in 1982 with those of company leadership in 2008 when there were "more than 100 complaints" of stomach ailments caused by one of its products.

The Food & Drug Administration had to "step in and force a recall," she said. J&J had said that only a "small amount of reports" was involved that were not "very serious" and the company did not think it was "a big deal."

As a result of that attitude, J&J's reputation "suffered," said Sonin.

NYT's Singer Covered J&J Problems

The McNeill Consumer Healthcare unit of J&J in 2010 recalled about 288 million items, including 136 million bottles of liquid Tylenol, Motrin, Zyrtec and Benadry for infants and children, according to a Jan. 15, 2011 story in the New York Times by Natasha Singer.

She said the string of recalls at McNeil "threatens to weaken the kind of trust that made many people willing to pay more for J&J brands."

The Food & Drug Administration said the company should have acted faster in recalling millions of pills that had a "moldy odor."

Ethics in General Discussed

The ethics discussion, called "The Silken Trap," was moderated by Kirk Hazlett, associate professor, communication/PR, Curry College, Milton, Mass.

Other presenters were Marlene Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor, Dept. of Journalism, PR & New Media, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and Philip Tate, SVP, Luquire George Andrews, Charlotte.

Hazlett said the best advice is "Tell the truth, tell it all, and tell it first."

Neill discussed an article she co-authored with Minette Drumwright, associate professor, University of North Carolina, titled "PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience: Why and How They Provide Ethics Counsel," which appeared in 2012 in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

PR Society Ethical Issues Ignored

Ethical issues for discussion by the panel had been emailed to Sonin and Neill by this website but were not brought up.

No. 1 is the Society blocking 82% of the members from running for national office because they are not accredited. This undemocratic rule has chased away many potential leaders since the 1970s.

No. 2 is press-avoiding policies and practices including blocking Society membership to most reporters while allowing a few to join; barring press from the last three Assemblies, and having boycotts against the O'Dwyer Co. that started in 1999.

No. 3 is addressing the debt owed to dozens of authors whose articles were illegally copied and sold by the Society from 1978-94. Thirteen authors explored a lawsuit but no law firm would take the case, saying the cost would be huge and victory uncertain. A moral debt continues to weigh on the Society.

No. 4 is stopping the practice of booking dues as cash, which artificially inflates "net assets." A side issue is the annual withholding of IRS Form 990 from the Assembly and press, a filing that shows the pay packages of the top six staffers. It is being withheld again this year.

No. 5 is addressing the Society's praise of Johnson & Johnson's handling of the seven Tylenol murders in 1982. The 32nd anniversary of the murders is Monday, Sept. 29.