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COVID-19 and Lessons from Tylenol’s Crisis
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the demand for personal protective equipment for heroic health care workers grows stronger by the day.
That’s put a spotlight on the makers of such gear, particularly 3M, a leading manufacturer of the indispensable N95 mask. After a public feud with the Trump administration and a flurry of media coverage, one thing is clear: while 3M did not create the medical supply shortages connected to COVID-19, it has a major role to play in navigating the resulting crisis.
In times like these, the tale of another multinational powerhouse offers a simple lesson for brands faced with crises not of their making.
The Tylenol Poisoning Crisis of 1982
In September of 1982, the eyes of the world were upon Johnson & Johnson. The drug maker’s Extra-Strength Tylenol had been transformed into a murder weapon. Tampered pill bottles filled with cyanide-coated capsules had killed seven people in and around Chicago.
Through no fault of its own, J&J found itself at the center of a major public health and public relations crisis.
Image via dailyherald.com.
The company’s response was swift and effective. At a cost of over $100 million, J&J ordered a complete recall, pulling 31 million Tylenol bottles from shelves and offering tamper-proof replacements for free.
James Burke, chairman of J&J at the time, ensured consumer confidence by fronting a media strategy that prioritized accountability and full transparency. The efforts kickstarted the modern recall culture and led to significant safety improvements in how over-the-counter drugs are packaged and sold.
Tylenol Recall Redefines Crisis Response
Effectively, J&J put customers before everything else – and customers noticed. The company’s stock rebounded to pre-crisis levels a mere two months later. Taking control of a crisis isn’t always the right move. But Burke recognized the power in owning the crisis and shaping the narrative through bold, customer-focused action.
3M appears to have taken a page from J&J’s book. The company has committed an additional 55 million N95 masks per month for the next three months, adding to its domestic output of 35 million masks. It’s also offered additional relief and committed to fighting price gouging among competitors.
3M’s response may not rewrite the crisis communications handbook like Tylenol did, but initial consumer response has been positive.