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August 23, 2010
A Call for Reconsidering J&J's Handling of Tylenol
We're not able to sort out a 28-year-old story from this remove, but PR colleagues everywhere ought to be aware of the explosive response today by Jack O'Dwyer, of O'Dwyer Public Relations, to a lengthy story in yesterday's The New York Times on crisis management, including the fabled response Johnson & Johnson made to the "Tylenol murders" in 1982.

Johnson & Johnson has been hailed for its supposedly exemplary handling of the Tylenol recall -- it's become a case study in effective crisis management -- yet O'Dwyer takes on both Johnson & Johnson and The New York Times'  burnishing of that episode. The actual response, he asserts, doesn't deserve such hallowed treatment.

Just how Johnson & Johnson reacted, prompted by what motives, is important to consider, because the essence of crisis management is that, when a crisis occurs, the response needs to be both prompt and trustworthy. 

Here's O'Dwyer noting that Johnson & Johnson "waited five days after the murders (of seven people in Chicago) were discovered to order a recall. By that time there were almost no Tylenol products on any store shelf in the U.S." 

Furthermore, he quotes an Australian professor as contending that Tylenol should not have been marketed in capsule form in the first place.

There's more in O'Dwyer's attack to suggest that Johnson & Johnson's response should be reconsidered, The New York Times' tribute notwithstanding. This is a prominent incident, indeed -- according to The Economist -- the "gold standard" in the annals of crisis management. It raises the question of whether a company, any company, truly can act in a public-spirited manner at a time of crisis. We believe that's possible, but we leave it to you to review Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol episode to your own satisfaction. Based on O'Dwyer's exasperated blog post, more likely is to come.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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