How Effective Public Relations Saved Johnson & Johnson.
by Tamara Kaplan, The Pennsylvania State University
- "Public Relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the public on whom its success or failure depends." (Broom, Center, Cutlip, 1)
In the fall of 1982, McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, was confronted with a crisis when seven people on Chicago's West Side died mysteriously. Authorities determined that each of the people that died, had ingested an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule laced with cyanide. The news of this incident traveled quickly and was the cause of a massive, nationwide panic. These poisonings made it necessary for Johnson & Johnson to launch a public relations program immediately, in order to save the integrity of both their product and their corporation as a whole.
The Story of the Tylenol Poisonings
When 12 year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Ill., awoke at dawn with cold symptoms, her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol and sent her back to bed. Little did they know, they would wake up at 7:00 a.m. to find their daughter dying on the bathroom floor. (Beck, 32)
That same morning, Adam Janus, 27, of Arlington Heights, Ill., took Extra- Strength Tylenol to appease a minor chest pain. An hour later, Janus suffered a cardiopulmonary collapse and died suddenly. That very evening, when relatives gathered at Janus' home, Adam's brother Stanley, 25, and his wife Theresa, 19, took Tylenol from the same bottle that had killed their loved one. They were both pronounced dead within the next 48 hours. (Tifft, 18)
Mary Reiner, 27, of the neighboring suburb, Winfield, died after taking two Tylenol capsules the next day. Reiner, who was dead within hours at the local hospital, had just recently given birth to her fourth child. Paula Prince, 35, a United Airlines stewardess, was found dead in her Chicago apartment with an open bottle of Extra- Strength Tylenol nearby. Mary McFarland, 31, of Elmhurst, Ill., was the seventh victim of the cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. (Beck, 32) (Tifft, 18)
The cause of these strange and sudden deaths did not remain a mystery for long. The connection to Tylenol was discovered within days with the help of two off-duty firemen who were at home listening to their police radios. The two men, Philip Cappitelli and Richard Keyworth were exchanging information about the deaths, when they realized that Tylenol was mentioned in two of the reports. The men made some assumptions and told their superiors that there was a possibility that the over the counter drug was the mysterious killer. (Tifft, 18)
The Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules in question were each found to contain 65 milligrams of cyanide. The amount of cyanide necessary to kill a human is five to seven micrograms, which means that the person who tampered with the pills, used 10, 000 times more poison than was needed. Dr. Thomas Kim, chief of the Northwest Community Hospital at the time of the poisonings, said, "The victims never had a chance. Death was certain within minutes." (Tifft, 18) (Tylenol Murders, 3)
The nation was warned about the danger of Tylenol as soon as a connection could be made. Police drove through Chicago announcing the warning over loudspeakers, while all three national television networks reported about the deaths from the contaminated drug on their evening news broadcasts. A day later, the Food and Drug Administration advised consumers to avoid the Tylenol capsules, "until the series of deaths in the Chicago area can be clarified." (Tifft, 18)