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PR Study – Saving Tylenol

Marketing Degree Guide: How PR Saved Tylenol

So, what exactly is public relations and why do companies need it in order to maintain a successful business?  According to the PRSA 1982 National Assembly, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”  They use the word organization because it doesn’t limit just businesses or companies as every organization can benefit from good PR. Here is a guide to understanding how PR saved Tylenol.

What happened with the mysterious deaths?

Back in 1982, there was a crisis in Chicago when seven people in the West Side died very mysteriously.  This was brought to McNeil Consumer Products’ attention, which at that time, was a part of Johnson & Johnson.  It was then found out that each person who died, had taken an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule that was laced with cyanide.  This news was so disturbing that it caused a very serious nationwide panic.   Because of all the scare of poisonings, J & J had to immediately launch a PR to quickly recover their brand reputation and their entire company.

How did the victims get their hands on these pills?

Mary Kellerman (12 years old) was experiencing some cold symptoms one night when her parents gave her only one Extra-Strength Tylenol to try to help her get some rest.  However, the next morning, her parents found their daughter dying, literally, on the bathroom floor.  In that same morning, 27 year-old Adam Janus took some for a chest pain he was experiencing and then later suffered a cardiopulmonary collapse and immediately died.   After that, two other family members took medicine from the same bottle and were both found dead shortly after.  Within the next two days, Mary Reiner, 27, also died after only take two capsules whom just had just gave birth to her fourth child.  35 year-old Paula Prince was also found dead next to an open bottle of the Tylenol.  Finally, Mary McFarland, 31, was the seventh victim of the poisoned Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide.

After some quick investigating, the cause of these strange deaths were discovered when Tylenol was mentioned in two reports and found a link between these deaths.  It was found that there was 65 milligrams of cyanide found in the Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules.  According to statistics, it only takes five to seven micrograms to kill a human.  Therefore, those pills were 10,000 times more easily to kill a person than was needed.  After the whole incidence and discovery of the cause, there was a nation-wide warning sent out about the danger of these pills.  Announcements were made through television broadcasts, police driving around the city making warnings over loudspeakers, and finally it was reported to the Food and Drug Administration to avoid these capsules.

How the cyanide was into the pills were not from tampering at its plants, but had been laced during the shipments from the plants.  These were only found in the Chicago area, which concluded that any tampering with the capsules must have occurred as soon the Tylenol entered Illinois.

The nationwide panic

As the word got spread around very quickly, it caused a nationwide panic among all the people.  A hospital in Chicago even got 700 phone calls in just one day and other hospitals around the country were admitting people whom suspected they may have been poisoned as well due to the scare.   From all of this, the FDA noted that there were also 270 incidents of suspected product tampering, but only about 36 of these cases were actual tamperings.

Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol were faced with a rather huge dilemma after the crisis.   The situation they were in was pretty bad, as they had to pick up after the whole scare and find a way to deal with all the tamperings while mending their customer relationship and their company reputation.  Biggest challenge of all was to redeem their most profitable product, Tylenol, back to their users.  Most marketers almost completely had no faith in their company as they were already in a deep slump from the incident because the public would always question whether or not their products were safe to use.

How did Johnson & Johnson deal with the crisis?

All the marketers’ doubts were proved wrong, as Tylenol is still one of the top selling over the counter pain reliever drugs in the country.  The way that J & J handled the crisis was considered to be one of the best in all public relations history by the experts.  There were two phases involved in this process.  The first was how they actually handled the crisis, and the second step was the PR plan.  Phase two’s planning began almost immediately as the first was put into effect.

Phase 1:  Putting customers first

After the discovery of all the deaths in Chicago, Johnson & Johnson’s very first top priority was to put the safety of their customers first above their loss of profits and company’s financial standings.  They immediately sent warnings out across the country to not intake any Tylenol product until a resolution was concluded.  J & J stopped all advertising and production of Tylenol and recalled around 31 million bottles retailing over 100 millions of dollar.  This was actually unusual for such a large company to do this when faced with a crisis; typically, they would damage their reputation even more by putting the company first.

J & J was highly recognized for their social responsibility as a company for their actions.  They also built relationships with the FDA and Chicago Police to help partake in the search of the person responsible for lacing the Tylenol capsules.  They were praised very highly for this over the media and articles mentioned that the way J & J handled the disaster with honesty, the way all businesses should follow in the footsteps of.  The company was very concerned with getting to the bottom of solving the murder and preventing future happenings again.  At first, there had been debates on whether or not to recall the Tylenol bottles, so they held it off until the burials of the two victims were broadcasts on television one evening and the J & J executives grieved at the losses.  After this, it was finally announced that the company was pulling 31 millions of Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles off the shelves for recall.  Their final plan for this first phase was to replace all capsules for Tylenol tablets even though it cost J & J even more millions of dollars, and that they may not have been any cyanide in any of the bottle they were replacing.

Phase 2:  Tylenol’s comeback plan with a new advertising vision

This phase had already been in the works since the first phase.  Tylenol was the number one alternative to aspirin and since it was a great moneymaker for J & J, they wanted to release a very thought out promotional and marketing program to bring the brand back to number one again.  Within six weeks of the learned deaths, they announced their public relations plan of recovery for Tylenol that included five main components.  The new capsules were introduced with new triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging.  They also offered coupons with purchases toward the new Tylenol products to encourage the new design.  A new pricing program was also put into effect giving almost 25% in discounts.  Finally, J & J asked salespeople from their domestic affiliates to make presentations those in the medical community to promote the support of the new reintroduction of Tylenol.

There was an article written praising J & J for their new recovery efforts providing free advertising.  Their new packaging was completely redone with a protective seal and warnings to not use if broken.  After this article, another was published and so on.  This media trend put J & J in a favorable light even if they had went through the major crisis.

Why and how did Johnson & Johnson make these decisions?

Johnson & Johnson pretty much stuck to their core business philosophy when they were deciding on how to handle the whole Tylenol crisis, in which they refer to as “Our Credo.”  This meant that they were prompted early to make the right decisions to react after the incident in such a large scale that to their comeback phase.   As the situation got more serious, they remembered to turn to credo for assistance and remembering that their company was for the public’s interest and not business gains.

By starting out the public relations program right, they were able to use the media to communicate these efforts to the public in a positive light showing that their cared for the people more than their financial success.   The media is actually what really spreads the words and efforts of J & J, they just have to announce their PR plan, and the rest is history.

Because they implemented a plan that protected the people, the media backed them up and Johnson & Johnson were able to recovery very quickly from one of the greatest pharmaceutical crisis of all history.


PRSA – Public relations defined according to the PR Society of America

Time Tylenol Poisonings – A brief history of the Tylenol poisonings from Time

Bnet – Article from the CBS Interactive Business Network on J & J’s Tylenol recall

History.com – The Tylenol murders on the story of all seven deaths from History.com

Tylenol Case Study – A case study on the crisis from Ou.edu

NYTimes – How Tylenol made a hero of J & J and how the recall started it from The New York Times

Mallenbaker – Looking at the crisis from a corporate social responsibility perspective

USA Today – Article how it affects us today from USA Today

Study on Tylenol – Tylenol and their effective crisis management

Another Case Study – Another case study from the crisis from Buffalo State