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Public Relations: The 1982 Tylenol Scare

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    The year 1982 will be remembered by Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson and the buying public as a very scary moment in the history of food and drugs manufacturing and sales, largely because of the death caused b the cyanide poisoning of Extra Strength Tylenol in the Chicago area killing seven individuals in less than a week. This is also an important event in the history of effective public relations effort. This case has been considered as a textbook case for crisis management so that the negative impacts of scandals such as the Tylenol Crisis in 1982 are minimized.

    The company and the brand

     Johnson and Johnson is one of the most popular consumer brands around the world. In the United States, the products being sold by this company are all widely patronized by its target customers. One of its popular products is Tylenol, an over the counter non-prescription drug taken usually to relive head aches. One of the most critical problems affecting public relations and publicity is the during-and-after periods following the breakout of the 1982 Tylenol Case.


    The 1982 Tylenol Crisis started in September 29 of the same year after the first casualty in the cyanide-laced medicine was ingested by Mary Kellerman. This was followed by the death of Adam Janus. During the mourning, Janus’ brother Stanley as well as Stanley’s wife Theresa died from the same reason as the first two casualties. By October 1 of the same year, another set of victims were identified, namely Paula Prince, Mary Reiner and Mary McFarland. Before there were any other casualties, the investigators were able to crack the mystery and pinned the reason to the ingestion of a poisonous Tylenol capsule.

    Four days after the last known casualty of the Tylenol medicine was reported, Johnson and Johnson were already pulling out Tylenol products in every shelves throughout the United States in a nationwide recall of the product. Aside from the recall of the products and the active role of the company in the investigation of the case, the company posted a reward amounting to $100,000 which was never claimed since the crime was unsolved after no one was found guilty of the crime, except for three individuals who were connected to the crime but were all cleared from the case, namely James W. Lewis, Roger Arnold and Laurie Dann.

    The players who got involved

     The important players in this particular problem includes Johnson and Johnson, McNeill Consumer Products and the brand name Tylenol; the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation of the crime; the food and drugs bureaus and agencies of the government who participated in this crisis and proposed improved means and ways to guarantee safety especially among consumer products that are ingested; the family members of the victims of the 1982 Tylenol Crisis; the individuals who were red-flagged as possible suspects in the crime; and the target market that Johnson and Johnson was trying to reach. The company was undertaking serious crisis management efforts through the use of extensive public relations efforts.


     The 1982 Tylenol Crisis was considered unsolved since no one was convicted for the crime. But there were also positive developments resulting from this crisis, and the most important is the development of methods and systems to guarantee the quality of the products being sold in markets and department stores, especially food and drugs like Tylenol. Because the 1982 Tylenol Crisis exposed a very serious problem in the quality control system of the food and drugs being sold in markets and stores, companies and government agencies worked hand in hand to ensure that the Tylenol problem won’t happen again and that both the products and the consumers are protected from the malicious intent of people who are looking at tampering food and drug products.

    Another important resolution stemming from the Tylenol Case is the elevation of product tampering as a serious federal offense. This act poses a great and mortal danger to many innocent people who maybe victimized to such dastardly acts, especially from people who are intent on sabotaging a company’s brand and credibility by killing, injuring or harming many innocent individuals in the process.

    RACE Analysis

    The analysis of the problem of Johnson and Johnson 1982 Tylenol crisis can be better viewed through the use of the “RACE Analysis.” The RACE Analysis features the use of research about the situation, the action plan that was taken by the company and the individuals involved, the communication plan that the company took to address the problem and the overall evaluation of the problem, assessing whether the company was successful in reaching the target audience and achieving the desired effect. If the case was otherwise, then the analysis should point out possible reasons why the public relations crisis management (of Tylenol in 1982, for this paper) was not effective as planned.

    Research – The problem from which the public relations crisis management of Johnson and Johnson stemmed from is the death of many customers in the Chicago and nearby area after ingesting the medicine Tylenol. This is a problem because companies are spending a lot of money investing on the creation of an image that the public can trust, so that the prospect of market growth and income of the company and its products are sustainable and profitable. Without the trust and support of the customers, companies and their brands will face bankruptcy.

    This was the concern of Johnson and Johnson after the news of the Tylenol-related deaths surfaced. Johnson and Johnson were not only worried about the possible lawsuits that they will face in lieu of these deaths, worse, they fear about the impact and potential damage of such scandal in Johnson and Johnson and its products not just in the US, but around the world. Because of the gravity of the impending financial backlash should the crisis is left unattended, the company quickly devised a crisis management plan centered on public relations and publicity efforts to ensure the public that (1) the situation is under control and that (2) the public is safe using and consuming the products made and sold by Johnson and Johnson.

    Action – When the news of the Tylenol related deaths came out, the first and most important question that Johnson and Johnson needed to answer was this: what is going to be done about it? Johnson and Johnson communicated to the people in two ways – through direct messages found in advisories from media sources, and through the indirect messages that the action of the company communicates, even if “Johnson and Johnson’s response was as limited as the circumstances would allow (Toth, 1992, p. 103).” The company’s president at that time James Burke “essentially identified two objectives. The first was to assure that J&J retain the public confidence and trust which had been the hallmark of the company for generations. The second objective was to handle the crisis in a fashion that would allow the company to rebuild the product and regain, if possible, its market share of analgesics (Bostock, 1985, p. 232).”

    The actions of Johnson and Johnson included the pull out of the products for review. “Before federal authorities could make a decision on what to do, Johnson and Johnson, on its own, recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol. The company’s president, James Burke, led the public relations efforts to restore faith in the company and product. Instead of playing the role as corporate leader or legal defender, he played the role of a public-health protector (Fitch, McCurry, 2004, p. 236).”

    Other actions included the efforts to inform the public about the situation, the offering of compensation for drugs already brought by the public but was surrendered to the FDA and to Johnson and Johnson during the recall, the cooperation of the company to the police investigations and the effort of the company to bring Tylenol back to the consciousness of the public after the scare subsided. Fitch and McCurry (2004) also identified “the efforts of Burke and Johnson and Johnson as part of the action plan to protect the public and protect the credibility and market potential of Johnson and Johnson during the Tylenol Crisis, including the guesting in shows like 60 Minutes and Donahue where Burke provided medical advices on Tylenol products, the creation of a telephone line exclusive for customer support on Tylenol, as well as the development of the company of new methods to protect the products of the company from tampering in the future (Fitch, McCurry, 2004, p. 236).”

    Communication – Johnson and Johnson was looking at reaching every possible niche and target market. This is to ensure that the communications efforts of the company to placate its customers and assure them that everything is being done to restore quality and safety in the products of Johnson and Johnson saturated the target market. The company used the mass media channels – radio, television and newspapers to be able to reach to its target market/audience and bring them words of information and assurance so that they will continue to patronize Johnson and Johnson products, including Tylenol.

    But to be able to show this side, Tylenol’s parent company must first stop a pre-crisis communication efforts – advertising of the product – so that the people are not led to believe that Johnson and Johnson was still trying to sell the product when there was a valid threat to the products that they had on store shelves. “The first was to stop all advertising. In taking this step, the company was in essence recognizing the depth of the tragedy and the intensity of public feelings which had been aroused. To continue to advertise the product when it was ‘lethal’ would have signalled to the public that J&J was not trustworthy and caring as it should be (Bostock, 1985, p. 232).”

    Evaluation – The impact of the public relations efforts in crisis management of the Tylenol problem was owed largely to the talented, experienced and very able members of the group that handled the crisis management from start to finish. They were able to use and maximize the resources that the company can provide just to guarantee that the impact of the scandal was as minimal as possible. “Johnson and Johnson’s reaction to the Tylenol scare has become a textbook case of how to handle the sudden emergence of a terrifying feature in a previously trustworthy product (McGrath, MacMillan, 2000, p. 32).” Because of these factors, the audience that Johnson and Johnson were targeting to reach were informed. Immediate marketing efforts and marketing strategies that supplemented the public relations efforts of the company to stave off the ill-effects of the 1982 Tylenol Crisis towards the selling power of the brand and its sister products can be considered effective. Tylenol, as a brand, managed to recover from the crisis and is still being patronized until today.


     Because of the gravity of the problem surrounding the 1982 Tylenol crisis and how it was effectively managed by the company, this case has been one of the textbook cases in public relations. This situations provides real life examples on how important public relations, is especially during times when the brand and the company’s identity is jeopardized by scandals like faulty products or deaths and injuries resulting from the use of a product. “Most important, the Tylenol case serves as something of a model for how to handle a crisis in a way which best protects a company and a product for the long term (Bostock, 1985, p. 232).”

    The case also teaches future public relations practitioners how to go about the crisis management of a particular brand or product when problems such as the Tylenol crisis unexpectedly erupts and goes public. The management of the Tylenol crisis in the public relations level is a commendable effort. The people behind the management of the crisis were able to save the brand and company, minimize the loss on market share and profit, and allowed the company a good chance to reclaim lost grounds as long term and short term public relations efforts went underway. For Johnson and Johnson, this was an important learning experience wherein they managed to come out alive and better in some aspects. “A well handled crisis can actually leave an organization in a stronger position, e.g. Johnson and Johnson’s excellent handling of the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis (Smith, Taylor 2004, p. 458).”


    Bostock, P. (1985). PR In Crises. Johnson and Johnson: Tylenol. A Geography of Public

    Relations Trends. Springer.

    Fitch, Brad and McCurry, Mike. (April 2004). Media Relations Handbook for Agencies,

    Associations, Nonprofits and Congress. The Capitol.Net, Incorporated.

    McGrath, Rita Gunter and MacMillan, Ian. (January 2000). Entrepreneurial Mindset:

    Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty. Harvard

    Business School Press.

    Taylor, Jonathan and Smith, Paul R. (July 2004). Marketing Communications. Kogan Page,


    Toth, Elizabeth L. (March 1992). Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations.

    Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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    Frequently Asked Questions

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    What did Tylenol do that was effective crisis communications?
    The company used the 1-800 number to respond to inquires from customers concerning safety of Tylenol. They also establish a toll-free line for news organizations to call and receive pre-taped daily messages with updated statements about the crisis (Berge, 1990).
    What other public relations options did Johnson & Johnson have in responding to the first round of Tylenol murders?
    What other public relation options did Johnson & Johnson have in responding to the first round of Tylenol murders? An alternative public relation option for the company was to carry out an investigation on what exactly had caused the deaths and explain it to the public if they were sure that Tylenol was safe.

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