If you’ve ever taken a survey public relations course, you probably learned about the 1982 Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis as a textbook example of good corporate crisis management. The seven deaths from cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol sparked national panic about the safety of over-the-counter medications and shook the foundation of the Johnson & Johnson brand. But through a responsive PR campaign, centered on making public safety as the organization’s number one concern, Johnson & Johnson avoided an all-out loss of market share.
When a crisis this catastrophic happens to a brand, you can bet that it’s going to affect the organization’s crisis management strategy moving forward. It comes as no surprise that after investigative journalists at ProPublica published a long profile of the severe potential danger in overusing the pain reliever acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Healthcare rolled out an integrated communications campaign which included many of the best practices learned from the 1982 crisis. Using social media and digital channels, McNeil was able to counteract many of the negative claims in the report.
The damning report alleged that 1,500 Americans died in the last decade after accidentally taking too much acetaminophen, and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and McNeil have long been aware of studies showing the risks of acetaminophen. Tylenol worked quickly educate the public on the risks of acetaminophen – on their own terms. Immediately following the release of the report, McNeil executives were made available for interviews with major publications and used those interviews to educate, instead responding to the negative claims in the report. Tylenol launched an integrated public awareness campaign called “Get Relief Responsibly,” which includes a YouTube channel, and a microsite detailing changes to Tylenol's dosing recommendations, as well as FAQs and general information. These campaigns and interviews pointed to the fact that earlier this year, Tylenol already announced it planned to improve warning labels beginning in October.