Johnson & Johnson and the 1982 Tylenol murders

As I was scanning through some of Andrew Winston’s previous blog entries at HBR, I came across this one that I thought had some interesting take-aways relevant to the Business Detox Project. The specific “lesson” that I was intrigued by was labeled “Downplaying your mistakes is, well, a big mistake“, and it referred to the 1982 Tylenol murders and the crisis response of Johnson & Johnson, which is still held to be the “gold standard” of crisis management. I commented:

Specific to one of your “lessons learned”, I find it remarkable that our gold standard in ethical crisis management is still Johnson & Johnson with Tylenol in 1982. Essentially, a company that chose to “do the right thing” is a significant outlier from standard business practices today. What would our world look like if this performance was actually considered to be “standard operating procedure” for companies, and where we as society demanded the tools & rules to hold companies to account?  I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson & Johnson circa 1982, and my sense is that they must have had a remarkable internal culture and some very strong, passionate leaders to resist the urge to (i) not take responsibility; (ii) limit their financial exposure by minimizing the recall, and; (iii) to try to conduct “business as usual” and hide behind some babble about “caring passionately” while not doing anything tangible. I’m quite confident that internally at the executive level and at the board level there must have been some knock-em-down-and-drag-em-out fights about the “prudent way” to respond and it is somewhat remarkable that the “take full responsibility now, remove the risk, make it right, and don’t look back” crowd ultimately won the day….

I did a bit of  searching to see if I could gain some insights, and I came across this article entitled J&J’s Tylenol Recalls Boost Dissident’s Alternate History of the 1982 Cyanide Crisis, which basically states that J&J wasn’t so quick off the mark as all that, and that J&J has done a lot of PR work to recast the story to their advantage. Having said that, in the end J&J did the right thing, which says a lot about the company.

Has anybody out there read the book that this article mentions: “Damage Control”? Any comments on the book from those that have read it…?


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