When Things Go Wrong, You Have To Own It

The recent crisis for Boeing (resulting from the 737 Max accidents) has prompted a flurry of think pieces analyzing Boeing’s response, and what sets apart the businesses and brands that manage to retain consumer trust and loyalty in the face a major crisis.

What is the ideal playbook for a response to a crisis of this magnitude? I’d argue Johnson & Johnson established the gold standard all the way back in 1982 when seven people in the Chicago area died after taking cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol.

The Recall That Started Them All

As The New York Times reports, “marketers predicted that the Tylenol brand, which accounted for 17 percent of the company’s net income in 1981, would never recover from the sabotage.” Yet within months, Tylenol was back on the market and its market share was climbing back to pre-crisis levels.

How did Johnson & Johnson achieve this feat, ease consumers’ minds, and retain their place in the market? Let’s take a look at what Tylenol’s PR playbook from 1982 can teach today’s brands.

Over-Communicate & Over-Correct

First, Tylenol took decisive action. It immediately recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from stores and offered to replace the product with its tablet form in a tamper-proof package for free. It was by most accounts the first major product recall of the consumer age and one that would set the standard for decades to come. The lesson here? Spend whatever it takes to make things right.

As soon as possible, company chairman James Burke gave a news conference outlining a complete chronology of the crisis and Tylenol’s response. Burke buoyed consumer trust at a pivotal moment and put a personal face on his brand. Burke “was widely admired for his leadership in the decision to pull Tylenol capsules off the market, and for his forthrightness in dealing with the media.”

Admit the Problem & Fix the Problem

By being the one to admit the problem, Burke retained control of a difficult situation and was able to begin the process of repairing Tylenol’s reputation as a safe, trustworthy product. As Axia PR writes, “J&J’s selfless response quickly won the acclaim of (news) outlets,” whose “positive coverage proved crucial in positioning J&J as a company that cared about the public’s well-being, essentially derailing any potential for backlash.”

The fix came just a few months later, with the rollout of a newly designed, tamper-resistant seal on all bottles of Tylenol painkillers. In conjunction, “more than 2,000 sales personnel would deliver presentations to the medical community to strengthen support of reintroducing Tylenol.” Not only was it a smart sales tactic, this move continued to provide a human face for the brand that helped rebuild consumer trust.

Set Priorities for the Future

Johnson & Johnson spent more than $100 million on its product recall and relaunch in the early ‘80s, and by doing so established the company’s priorities for the future. A new reputation as a brand that greatly cared for consumer safety allowed for a new direction. “Johnson & Johnson is a very different company today,” the Times notes, “once known for consumer products… it has become a pharmaceutical powerhouse.”

The Road to Recovery

Tylenol’s playbook still holds up today. By owning the problem and providing a quick, comprehensive fix (at considerable cost in the short term), the brand was able to rebuild itself and ultimately satisfy both consumers and investors.

The takeaway? Whether your company is a restaurant with a food poisoning incident, a construction company with a structural collapse or injuries, Boeing with the 737 Max crashes, or a delivery company that damages a client’s new furniture… you have to own it.

History suggests, as Tylenol and others have proven, that you will be rewarded for owning it.


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