Social Media and Tylenol and Recalls

On September 29, 1982, Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died. The doctors speculated that the cause was a capsule of Extra Strength Tylenol. A family member grieved over Facebook.

Later that day, Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, Illinois, died in the hospital shortly thereafter, also seemingly caused by Extra Strength Tylenol. A nurse tweeted about the incident. It was retweeted by four people within the hour. Within 12 hours there were 2,000 tweets. Groups of concerned bloggers posted hundreds of notes warning their readers to throw out their Tylenol bottles. Thousands of nervous consumers tossed their Tylenol bottles.

By the next morning, the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Associated Press all had stories out about the scare. All this occurred within 24 hours and before Tylenol had a chance to react.

This post is a neat little thought experiment that helps put our idea of a crisis communication success in context. Imagine if what I quoted above really did happen. Do you think that we’d be touting Tylenol’s response as one to emulate?

Or a better question might be, is a crisis communication success like that possible today? Later in the post, the author notes that Johnson & Johnson took more than a week to craft their response. And today we talk about what a great job they did. Then, when Tylenol had recalls earlier this year, we clucked and shook our collective head at how far Johnson & Johnson had fallen. I argue that we see the 1980’s era recall through rose-colored glasses.

A week!

If that happened today, we wouldn’t be raking Johnson & Johnson across the coals, we’d be mourning the the loss as the company went under.

There’s another thing. Today it was announced that there was yet another recall of Tylenol product (this one due to the need for better labeling of alcohol in the flavoring). This brings the total number of big Tylenol recalls this year to three.

I wonder, at that point, how the messaging changes. Should Johnson & Johnson continue to react to these recalls as singular events with a start and finish? At what point do they recognize the damage done to their brand is more than the sum of each recall? And how do they begin to combat that? Should they start now, and couple it with the latest recall, or as part of a separate, focused campaign about rebuilding the brand?

Furthermore, what can we, as communicators, learn from this situation. BP took a huge hit from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but I believe that the constant drip, drip, drip of bad news multiplied the negative public reaction. Long, singular events are tough, but this is different. What about a series of bad events?

Bad press, recover, bad press, mostly recover, bad press, business drops through the floor.

Does your crisis communication plan take that into account, or is it still predicated around singular events with defined ends?

As was ably demonstrated in the original post, we live in a time when a little bad news hits the national media in hours. After that initial bout of trouble, everyone knows your organization is wounded, there’s nothing to stop the media and citizen journalists from smelling blood and digging up dirt.

(There’s a local story about the Philadelphia Housing Authority former Director that I think illustrates this. What started off as a simple story about a lien placed on his house for failure to pay taxes spiraled into accusations of sexual harassment, bullying in the office, and improper spending. Once he was seen as damaged, the sharks moved in and it was only a matter of time before he resigned.)