Foster’s death predictably led to the media rehashing the crisis and repeating the common claim that J&J’s “prompt and effective response” represented a gold standard of what to do.
It is probably true, as some experts claim, that the origin of crisis management as a modern discipline can be traced back to the Tylenol case. Yet there is now real doubt whether the handling of the crisis itself has anything useful to say to today’s practitioners.*
Following the seven deaths in Chicago, J&J initiated a series of limited recalls, but it took five days to implement a full nationwide recall. In today’s 24/7 news cycle it is more likely that such a response would not attract praise for promptness but criticism for delay. Furthermore, during the recall, J&J deliberately used the name of their manufacturing subsidiary in an apparent attempt to shield the corporate brand.
The product was relaunched in new tamper-resistant packaging, gaining more praise for J&J. But four years later there was a further US death from cyanide-poisoned Tylenol (and the safety seal was unbroken). After another delayed recall, the company finally replaced vulnerable capsules with much safer solid caplets. CEO James Burke later admitted it had been a mistake to reintroduce the capsules and he was sorry they had delayed the switch.