Any business executive who has ever stumbled into a public relations ambush ought to appreciate the way Johnson & Johnson is responding to the Tylenol poisonings.
Extra Strength Tylenol capsules may not survive in the marketplace, but Johnson & Johnson executives have effectively communicated the message that Tylenol is as much a victim as the people who swallowed cyanide-laced capsules.
Though the hysteria and frustration generated by random murder have often obscured the company's actions, Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.
This is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company's response did more damage than the original incident. There has been no Nixonian "modified limited hang-out" at the J&J headquarters in New Brunswick, N.J.
No one at the McNeil Consumer Products subsidiary has tried to pretend that nothing is wrong, as Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. officials did when the Firestone 500 tires were disintegrating.
Nor has the company yielded to the temptation to pillory the media, not even when sensation-seekers tried to link a suicide in Philadelphia in April to the murders in Chicago last week. Not even the publicity-grabbing Chicago prosecutor -- who just happens to be running for higher office -- has been able to prompt a backlash from the company.
What J&J executives have done is communicate the message that the company is candid, contrite and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public.
The temptation to disclaim any possible connection between the product and the murders must have been difficult for the manufacturer to resist, yet there is no evidence J&J even considered trying to tough it out. Expressing horror at the deaths, the company moved quickly to trace the lot numbers of the poisoned packages and almost immediately posted a $100,000 reward for the killer.
When investigators issued a warning not to take any Tylenol capsules, the manufacturer did not whimper about over-reaction, though surely it might have.
Rather than resist, Johnson & Johnson has carefully, one step at a time, escalated its actions to deal with the crisis. First it shut down the Tylenol capsule production line, then it withdrew all capsules from sale. McNeil executives went on ABC's Night Line and the other networks' morning news shows to promise the capsules would not return to the shelves until a tamper-proof package had been perfected.
Finally on Thursday, J&J offerred to exchange all Tylenol capsules for Tylenol tablets. More than 22 million bottles of Tylenol capsules are believed to be in consumers' medicine chests and on pharmacists' shelves, almost $80 million worth of the drug at retail prices. There may not be a drop of cyanide in any of those bottles, but all of them will be destroyed, the company decided on its own initiative.
Replacing the capsules with tablets will cost Johnson and Johnson tens of millions of dollars, a stunning amount even for a popular and profitable drug like Tylenol. Almost $400 million worth of Tylenol was sold last year, more than 40 percent of it in capsule form. Tylenol was the best-selling single product of the $5.4 billion company that is best known for Band-aids and baby products.
The company won't talk about its strategy but does acknowledge it has three task forces at work trying to rescue the reputation of Tylenol.
It's reasonable to speculate that Johnson & Johnson executives did not decide to swallow the cost of the Tylenol recall simply because they are nice people. Their marketing strategy for Tylenol has been anything but generous.
With a massive advertising budget, Tylenol simply blew off the shelves every other non-prescription pain killer. Outselling Anacin, Bayer aspirin, Bufferin and Excedrin, Tylenol became the number one alternative to aspirin, the most popular over-the-county pain killer with 37 percent of the market.
Tylenol's success was a marketing masterpiece. J&J introduced the drug first to doctors and hospitals, then built on its reputation as a "professional product" when Tylenol went into the drug stores and supermarkets.
So much advertising and marketing money was poured into Tylenol that none of the other makers of acetaminophen pain relievers was ever able to threaten its dominance. Bristol Meyers took on Tylenol by launching Datril in the mid-1970s, but had to settle for a paltry 3 percent of the market.
Some marketing mavens believe Tylenol is doomed by doubts that will remain even if the Chicago murders are solved. "I don't think they can ever sell another product under that name," Madison Avenue advertising genius Jerry Della Femina told The New York Times. "There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this and if they find him, I want to hire him, because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler."
Della Femina isn't the only consumer product specialist who thinks Johnson & Johnson will need a savior to keep Tylenol alive, but the moves made so far by J&J are the right ones regardless of whether Tylenol tries to become a born-again success or is laid to rest.
Their decision to recall and destroy all the capsules should quickly remove the product from public attention. At the same time, the recall creates a vacuum on the drug store shelves, a space waiting to be filled by a new Tylenol package or a new acetaminophen pain medication from McNeil Laboratories.
From the day the deaths were linked to the poisoned Tylenol until the recall on Thursday, Johnson & Johnson has succeeded in portraying itself to the public as a company willing to do what's right regardless of cost.
Serving the public interest has simultaneously saved the company's reputation. That lesson in public responsibility -- and public relations -- will survive at Johnson & Johnson regardless of what happens to Tylenol.