1982 Tylenol case a misleading myth: O’Dwyer takes on Fortune, J& J and the public relations establishment!!

My good and esteemed friend, Jack O’Dwyer, has overturned yet another rug from the dainty sitting room in which our professional community enjoys talking to herself in the mirror in the most onanistic of behaviours (not that, as bloggers, we act differently…) and the air does not smell so good…. Just in case, according to Wikipedia, Onan is a person described in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. The word onanism, an older term for masturbation or “spilling of seed” derives from his name because of one interpretation of his actions in the Bible….

Not that I agree with many of Jack’s sometime rancid rants against Prsa or the huge conglomerates: for example I do not agree with his ‘character assassination’ of new Prsa president William Murray from the first day he took office without even giving him a chance to settle in; nor do I agree with his insisted depiction as simply ‘european’ of the mute, opaque, either/or push communication policies the conglomerates appear to implement.
But Jack, as I also, is getting on with his years and he certainly deserves more respect and attention that he receives from his chosen victims, if not for other reasons, because he his undoubtedly an excellent reporter and, however often exaggerated and even sometime unfair, his attacks are almost always based on facts that nobody takes the trouble to try to correct.

In any case, I am convinced that it is time that many of the myths which surround our professional history be put under renewed and investigative scrutiny so that we, as senior educators or professionals, avoid transmitting these, by adding on to them whatever credibility we have been able to create.
One of the myths of our profession is, of course, the Tylenol case.
And here is Jack’s most recent article ( not the first, mind you) on it:

Fortune Lauds 1982 Tylenol Recall by J&J as Crisis PR “Gold Standard”
But Critics say too many “myths” have grown up around the 1982 Tylenol tragedy. One critic has referred to Tylenol as “a fairy tale” that has to be “untaught” to students.
Tues., May 22; odwyerpr.com

The May 28 Fortune magazine, in a full-page feature, said Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke’s response to the Tylenol murders in 1982 “remains the gold standard in crisis control.”
Burke could have tried to “ride out the storm or simply reacted to the regional problem,” but he instead “went on the offensive, launching both a recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules and a massive PR campaign to inform the public,” says the article by Jia Lynn Yant with “additional reporting” by Eugenia Levenson.
Burke “became the face of Tylenol, appearing on “60 Minutes” and later “even allowing cameras into the strategy sessions. He led by exuding calm and a sense of control,” says the article.
Crisis expert James Lukaszewski, addressing the PRSA Westchester/Fairfield chapter and the Fairfield PR Assn., March 7, 2001, said the Tylenol story, as commonly told, is a “fairy tale.”
Counselor Helio Fred Garcia, of Clark & Weinstock, who spoke on the same program, called the Tylenol story “a myth.”
Lukaszewski says that when he is teaching a PR course students usually think that J&J pulled the drug between 24 and 72 hours.
The “astounding part” of a Harvard University videotape on Burke and Tylenol, said Lukeszewski, is that Burke learned of the tragedy in Chicago on Wednesday, Sept. 30, and called a staff meeting for Monday.”
“Think about that,” said Lukaszewski, “what started on Monday was an enormous debate within the organization as to what to do about that” (the murders).
Both J&J and the Federal Drug Administration on Thursday, Oct. 1, put out nationwide bulletins telling people not to take any Tylenol capsules.
J&J at first tried to localize the problem, recalling two batches that were circulated in the Chicago area.
The product recall was started after another attempted poisoning using Tylenols took place on the following Tuesday in Oroville, Calif. The victim became sick of strychnine poisoning but did not die.
Garcia said the “myth” of Tylenol is that the company reacted “within 24 hours.” Perpetuating this myth was the 1999 movie “The Insider” in which actor Russell Crowe says Burke “just pulled Tylenol off the shelves in every store right across America instantly.” On saying the word “instantly,” Crowe made a sweeping motion with his right arm.
Problem Was Capsules
Other critics say the problem was not with the Tylenol analgesic or the packaging but with the capsule itself which could easily be taken apart and “spiked.”
Some pharmacists would not stock any such capsules, believing they were unsafe.
The soft gel capsules were popular because consumers thought they dissolved quicker in the stomach. However, medical experts said tablets dissolve just as fast.
J&J, say critics, instead of acknowledging that the real problem was the capsules, reintroduced the product supposedly guarded by “tamper-resistant” packaging.
Diane Elsroth, 23, was poisoned via Tylenol capsules in February 1986 in Yonkers, New York. There was no indication that the seals on the bottle had been tampered with.
Burke, following this death, said, “Yes, indeed, I am,” when a reporter at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., asked him on Feb. 19, 1986, if he was sorry J&J did not stop making Tylenols in capsules after the Chicago murders.
No Press Conference Was Held
While Burke has been lauded for his openness with the press, he did not hold a press conference after the 1982 murders. Reporters were handled on an individual basis.
Critics say that what J&J wanted to avoid was hundreds of reporters descending on headquarters and asking questions such as occurred after the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
One question would have been why would anyone be so angry at J&J? The Oct. 8, 1982 Wall Street Journal said that the company was a fierce competitor and litigator and had a number of enemies.
Said the WSJ:
“And although Tylenol has been known as an aggressive, even predatory marketer that frequently used litigation to stymie competitors, J&J plays down suggestions that industrial sabotage or an overzealous competitor is responsible for the poisonings.”
It also said “J&J has developed a reputation for sometimes riding roughshod over inventors and small entrepreneurial firms from which it often buys technology.”
In 1981, a federal jury awarded $93 million to three Minnesota businessmen who said J&J bought their electronic painkiller device but didn’t market it since it competed with J&J’s analgesic products. The award was being appealed.
Several other lawsuits involving J&J were also described in the article.
Almost never mentioned in Tylenol stories are the names of the seven people who died. They were Mary Kellerman, 12, who had a cold and took the capsules; Adam Janus, 27, and his brother, Stanley, 25, and Stanley’s wife, Theresa, 19, who died when they took Tylenols after returning from the hospital where Adam died; Mary Reiner, 27, who had given birth to her third child several days previously; Mary McFarland, 31, and Paula Prince, 35, a flight attendant.
Relatives of the victims said J&J should have known that the capsules were vulnerable to tampering and at least put warnings on the bottles. About 50 poisoned capsules were found in eight bottles in Chicago suburbs.
The real heroes, say some, were the police and firefighters who went through the streets with bullhorns warning people not to take Tylenols.
Relatives of the victims battled with J&J for nearly eight years on the amount of the settlements. No offer was made until the day before a trial was to start in May 1991. All parties agreed to keep terms of the settlement secret.
Following the 1982 poisonings, J&J ordered its employees not to send gifts of any kind to the families of the victims.

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8 Replies to “1982 Tylenol case a misleading myth: O’Dwyer takes on Fortune, J& J and the public relations establishment!!

  1. Friday’s link to Jack O’Dwyer’s blog referred to an old, but apparently still valid (and certainly timely…) interpretation of the famous Tylenol case -in a moment in which Johnson and Johnson finally went public with a statement after months of silence and repeated product recalls- gives me an opportunity to invite readers to click here http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/business/22crisis.html?_r=1&hp and read what, in my view, is by far the best and most comprehensive investigative story of the recent BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs cases which appeared today, Sunday, on the New York Times.

    Yet another proof, if one was needed, that if you are capable of establishing a great reputation (and certainly J&J, whethere Jack is right or wrong, certainly has), then it is likely that other negative corporate stories (like BP, Toyota and Goldman) are more likely to attract the attention of the public…..

  2. Anyone involved in teaching PR should be aware of the dangers of case study narratives. They do help students engage with a topic, but are constructed realities, and as in the case of both Tylenol and Exxon Valdez (highly popular examples) have been developed to be of particular value for conveying PR messages about crisis management.

    Part of PR’s credibility as an academic topic, has to be recognition of issues of narrative compared to robust historical analysis.

    This is particularly important as in my experience marking exam scripts of young undergraduate PR students re crisis management, they have selective recall and understanding of the case study, which in turn impacts on their knowledge of theory and its limitations for practice.

    Tylenol is typical of a case study narrative used to convey “the right way” to practice PR. This is a linear, systemic, modernist approach to PR which ignores the complexity of reality and the needs of a post-modernist world.

    I feel we are doing a disservice to students, practitioners and employers, when we continue to use such simplistic, cliched examples. By all means recognise the value of narrative in examples, but let’s be honest about the reality rather than creating ideals that present some companies and approaches as heroes and others as villains.

  3. Jack is back again on this story. Read this note which was added this morning and which replies to Luigi Norsa’s comment here:

    The Tylenol PR effort following the deaths of seven people in 1982 did not win a “regular” Silver Anvil of PR Society of America in 1983.
    It was entered by J&J in the “Emergency PR” category and lost to Hygrade Food Products handled by PR Assocs. of Detroit for a program called “Getting Hygrade off the Griddle” after its hot dogs were allegedly tampered with.
    Beverly Beltaire, president of PRA, said she was shocked when J&J got a “special” Silver Anvil.
    Co-chair of the Anvils Don Hill “called me and said, ‘You beat Tylenol…your campaign had so many creative angles and was done for so much less.'”
    One reason Tylenol lost was that J&J refused to provide any budget figure. A big factor in winning an Anvil is obtaining maximum impact through editorial pick-up at minimum expense.
    Beltaire said she asked Hill how J&J won the “special Anvil” and he replied that the Silver Anvil committee itself made the award, something that was unprecedented in Anvil history.
    The committee decided that Tylenol “was more than an emergency PR program–that it lifted the level of PR,” said Hill.
    J&J for many years was one of the biggest advertisers in PRSA publications. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (named after the founder of J&J) gave $2.6 million in 1998 to the “Kids in a Drug-Free Society” started by the PRSA Foundation and the Partnership for a Drug-Free Society. The RWJ Foundation canceled the program in 2001.
    PRSA had promised to raise $1M for KIDS but had a loss of $1M in 1999-2000 and made no contribution to KIDS. It cancelled its 2000 Blue Book of Members because of lack of funds.

  4. My life companion is a respected contemporary historian and she says that, as much as historiographic interpretations of events may change as cultures change, facts are facts and no history is possible if these are not verified.
    Of course, there are facts and facts… and in the mind of others their interpretation changes according to which are focussed and which are either omitted or underplayed.
    I do not know if the factual elements Jack brings to his story are correct or not and I believe it would be essential for Johnson and Johnson, a company I and most of us have always admired (also because of her presumed handling of the Tylenol case), to tell us all that she knows…if not for other reasons (transparency…) to put the record straight so that when Jaryna, for example, teaches to her beginners.. she says things which are factual.
    I am sure many would think that a similar approach should involve many other moments of our professional history…for example, for years I had been convinced that our mythical Ed Bernays was not paid by tobacco manufacturers when he promoted the ‘let women smoke in public’ parade down manhattan’s park avenue. Then (I believe, but might be wrong) that it was Stuart Ewen in his Spin book who revealed this fact. I still believe that Ed was the most creative professional of the 20th century and certainly the most influential, but of course I now better understand why he did it (and not because he was a pre-feminist, having also learned of his highly admirable sexual prowess which lasted longer than his first centennial…or is this also a myth?).

  5. Certainly, an interesting turn of events for me – I’m one of those who uses the Tylenol case frequently when teaching for beginners. It’s worthwhile to understand what really happens. But what I believe truly important is how much this myth affected the practice of crisis management and helped set the standards, including the 24-hour rule.

  6. Dear Toni, this case is a myth, as others, because with the years many people, not directly witnessing, speak about. And the story change…
    J&J received a Silver Anvil Award from the PRSA for its handling of the affair, but some dissenting opinions were also voiced. It was a very complex story that generated 2500 logged enquiries from the media and up to 138000 clippings. Some months later Basil Saunder wrote an interestin analysys on Public Relations. The essential point of this case is that despite only 75 capsules from a single batch resulted contaminated after the testing of 8 millionsin the factory, the fact that the contamination could not have taken place and despite the advise of FBI and FDA, J&J decided to recall all Tylenol capsules nationwide. And six weeks later relaunched the product with a huge video-conference and within five months Tylenol recovered 70% of its former market share, dropped to 13%. Perhaps it’s more an excellent case of marketing than PR…but no questions they were able to manage a disaster and transforming it in a positive myth.

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