Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Cyanide Crisis

Compiled Spring 2003 by Professor Ron Smith for students at Buffalo State College


Fall 1982: 7 people near Chicago died of cyanide poisoning
Linked to Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules
Capusules had 10,000 times lethal dose

Nationwide alert
Food & Drug Administration

Chicago hospital received 700 calls in one day
People hospitalized throughout country on suspicion of poisoning

270 copycat tampering throughout nation (only 36 verified)

Tainted capsules from 4 manufacturing lots
Tampered with over several weeks/months


Johnson & Johnson

Tylenol most profitable product of Johnson & Johnson
CEO James Burke
PR VP Larry Foster

J&M had crisis plan but no preparation for tragedy of this scale
Corporate PR part of J&J management

J&J turned to its corporate philosophy from 1940s, "Our Credo"
Credo cites responsibility to consumers, employees, committees, stockholders
Founder Robert Johnson believed credo was both moral and profitable





PR Action/Response

Communication Strategy



Recurrence 4 years later, one person died
J&J withdrew capsules entirely (cost: $180 million)
76% in national poll said J&J had done enough to ensure product safety

PR Lessons

  1. "Do Gooder" philosophy can work in corporate America
  2. A good reputation can save a company during a crisis
  3. Consumers are willing to trust a company that appears to be committed to their interests
  4. When a company is victimized along with its consumers, the ability to recover is high
  5. Public relations does contribute to the "bottom line" of a corporation

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