Case study – The Tylenol sabotage: turning a crisis into an opportunity

In one of our previous blog entries, we have discussed the importance of a crisis control plan, and analyzed the various steps which should be undertaken in order to overcome a crisis successfully or try and limit its consequent damages. There have also been cases of companies which, struck by a crisis, have not only managed to overcome it, but ended up using it to their complete advantage.

One of the most famous case studies in the history of corporate communications, is the sabotage of Tylenol, an analgesic produced by Johnson&Johnson. In September 1982, in Chicago, seven people died following the ingestion of Tylenol capsules contaminated with cyanide. The companies’ factories were searched to determine whether or not the contamination had originated from the production lines. Johnson&Johnson collaborated with the police, also conducting a series of private internal investigations. The authorities were quick in determining that the contamination had happened after the distribution of the capsules on the market. Someone was subtracting Tylenol packages from the shelves of the malls were the product was sold, filling the capsules with cyanide, and then placing them back on the shelves.

Once Johnson&Johnson, was cleared from any responsibility in the incident, the company decided to handle the crisis in the most open way possible. The company activated a crisis cell tasked with creating awareness about the sabotage among the general public. A free phone number was also made available. All the media campaigns were halted and dedicated TV spots were created to alert the public about the presence of the sabotaged Tylenol capsules. The company’s spokesperson was actively involved in this communication effort, with frequent appearances on the national media. Ultimately, the capsules were replaced by tablets, which were impossible to tamper with, and the change of format to ensure product safety was amply publicized.

What is most interesting is the fact that Johnson&Johnson chose a different type of message and communication channel to address different types of audiences. Victims’ families, media, company executives, stakeholders, doctors and pharmacists all received information which was tailored to their needs.

Which were the critical factors in the management of the crisis?

In the first stages of the emergency, when responsibility for the incident wasn’t clear yet, instead of waiting for the attacks of the media, Johnson&Johnson took an active role in the dissemination of information, thus establishing total control on the information flow. Secondly, by informing the public about the danger and replacing capsules with tablets, the company followed its corporate Credo of transparency and respect for its corporate stakeholders. Through the appropriate handling of this crisis, Johnson&Johnson managed to reinforce their corporate image of a company which genuinely cares for its clients.

Share Button



Subscribe to our newsletter to keep yourself up to date with the latest trends in advertising, marketing, public relations and social media.

Click Here to Subscribe >


Strategic Communications Ltd
Apt 432, Block 4, Ta Monita Residence
Triq il-Bajja

M: (+356) 9901 0072




Copyright 2009 - 2020 Strategic Communications Ltd