Today, it’s more important than ever for businesses and organizations to have a crisis management plan. And though no one likes to relive a crisis, you can learn from doing so.
In 1982, consumer research specialist Leslie Westbrook was in the “war room” during the Tylenol poisoning scandal that became a textbook case in the field of crisis management. What she learned is still important today. When dealing with controversy, it’s important to put humans first, business second.
Q. Can you take us back to the time of the Tylenol controversy? Where were you working? What was your job position at the time? When did you first hear about this controversy?
A. In 1982, at the time of the Tylenol poisoning, I had already created my consulting firm, Leslie M. Westbrook & Associates, Inc. After graduating from Ole Miss in 1968, I worked for Procter & Gamble for three years, where I was trained in classic consumer research. I then worked for a nationally prominent new product consulting firm for nine years. In 1980, I founded my consulting firm. I am a consumer research specialist/marketing strategist working with primarily Fortune 500 companies.
Joe Chiesa, then president of McNeil Consumer and makers of Tylenol, had been my client at another J&J company. I watched Jim Burke, then CEO of J&J Worldwide and the parent company of McNeil, announce on television that J&J would no longer make capsules (Too easy to tamper with. Who knew?)
All Tylenol capsules were being pulled off the shelves. Seven people had died as a result of Tylenol, which had been tampered with, and J&J did not want any more harm to their customers. They were cooperating with authorities, shutting down Tylenol capsule plants, interviewing employees . . . until the mystery was solved.
I was so impressed, so touched that the CEO of a major international consumer company was willing to lose millions in order not to hurt any more people. I wrote to Joe Chiesa to volunteer my services in any way needed. I volunteered to do their consumer research to help Tylenol, no charge. They had already done so much. I was summoned to Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, McNeil headquarters, for a meeting with the director of market research.
I was hired (they never accepted my offer to volunteer) to be the consumer specialist to work with the Tylenol Team (the war room) to stage a Tylenol comeback. I worked with R&D as they began to develop safety packaging for current Tylenol tablets (capsules were gone) and future Tylenol line extensions to replace the Extra Strength Capsule: what it must look like, how it should be described and named … to develop trust and confidence.
R&D also was charged with replacing the much-preferred capsule form vs. tablets for Extra Strength. (They) preferred it to be shaped like a capsule for swallowability, but it must be pure white like tablets (compressed powder) to visually communicate that it “cannot be tampered with.” (Decisions had to be made about) form, nomenclature, how to motivate capsule purchasers to buy Extra Strength Tylenol again … in this new form. The caplet form was born, along with Triple Safety Sealed packaging. It changed the consumer landscape forever.
Q. For those who may not be aware of what happened, can you give us a bit more background?
A. In September 1982, seven people in the Chicago area mysteriously died. It was discovered that each of the seven (random, not related) had taken Tylenol Extra Strength capsules. Police and FBI confiscated the Tylenol from all seven homes and the stores where these were bought.