Communication During a Crisis: Tylenol and Tires


Communication During a Crisis: Tylenol® and Tires

Of course, the true test of effective and empathetic communication comes with crisis. How companies react when their feet are held to the fire stays with consumers for a long, long time. In terms of trust, it can make a company—or break it.

Consider the quintessential case study of Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol® crisis. In the 1980s, unknown individuals laced Tylenol capsules with cyanide, resulting in several deaths. Johnson & Johnson didn't equivocate; it immediately announced the situation publicly and recalled the product. As the investigation continued (no one was ever convicted for the tampering and resulting deaths), company officials consistently and frequently kept the public informed.

It's clear that Johnson & Johnson's communication during the tampering crisis—backed by action and results—saved the Tylenol brand and reinforced the company's reputation as a "guardian of the public health."[8] After its reintroduction, Tylenol ultimately reclaimed leadership of the analgesic market. Furthermore, Johnson & Johnson became a pioneer of tamper-resistant packaging, an innovation that would be adopted industrywide and beyond.

Contrast the Tylenol case with the more recent crisis involving Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., and Ford Motor Company. Tread separation led to hundreds of fatal accidents involving Bridgestone tires on Ford Explorers. Under tremendous pressure Bridgestone recalled 6.5 million tires in August 2000. The two companies engaged in a very public blame game; amid climbing death tolls, media coverage portrayed Bridgestone and Ford as being more concerned with protecting themselves than with protecting their customers.

Ford claimed the deaths were due to faulty tires, while Bridgestone said a design flaw of the Explorer shared in the blame. After a long-entwined history dating back to the friendship between their respective founders, Bridgestone and Ford acrimoniously severed their ties. Both brands suffered—as of this writing, Bridgestone still hasn't recovered from the impact of its handling of the issue. Ford lost ground in both SUV market share and in consumer surveys.

One of those surveys was the Harris Interactive annual ranking of corporate reputations. In 2002, more than twenty-two thousand people rated sixty companies on six key dimensions: products and services, financial performance, workplace environment, social responsibility, vision and leadership, and emotional appeal. Ford was the lowest-ranked auto company, placing forty-third overall (an improvement over its 2001 ranking of fifty-second). Bridgestone/Firestone placed a dismal fifty-fifth overall, after finishing dead last in 2001.

In contrast, Johnson & Johnson ranked number one—for the fourth year in a row.

"Johnson & Johnson has just always been a very trust-worthy company," one Missouri woman told the Wall Street Journal. "Their ads are honest. They don't talk down to me. They think consumers have brains." Meanwhile, a man who experienced a Firestone tire blowout told the paper: "Firestone seems to have finally admitted the problem. Now it's up to [them] to tell it straight: What did you do to correct the situation? We consumers aren't tire engineers, but we know BS when it's offered."[9]

About ten years ago I was involved in a serious car accident in which my Ford Explorer literally saved my life. Based on my own personal experience, I trusted in the safety of Ford Explorers—and, given the SUV's popularity, so did thousands of other consumers. Similarly, in the years before the tampering incident, most consumers believed Tylenol was one of the safest drugs on the market. Postcrisis, Tylenol upheld, even enhanced, its brand image. As of now, Firestone, and to a degree, Ford, have not. A large part of the difference was in the quality of each company's communication to the public. How these organizations communicated with their customers likely played a large part in their decisions about whether to remain customers—or take their business elsewhere.

[8]Paul Lukas, "Johnson & Johnson: Medicine Men," http://www.fortune.com, April 18, 2003.

[9]Richard Alsop, "Scandal-Filled Year Takes Toll on Firms," Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2003.