The company’s lawyers, fearing lawsuits, advised Burke and other executives to say nothing. The lawyers had a point: within days, a widow of one of the victims sued J & J for $15 million.
The company’s stock fell 20 percent, and experts declared Tylenol, which contributed 17 percent of J & J’s net income, was dead.
Jerry Della Femina, a Madison Avenue ad guru, told the New York Times: “A flat prediction I’ll make is that you will not see the name Tylenol in any form within a year.”
A marketing professor advised the best J & J could do would be to “hide under a rock” and hope the attention went away.
Burke took the opposite tack. He repeatedly made himself available for on-air interviews. He answered every question, friendly or hostile.
Authorities quickly determined the contaminations occurred outside J & J’s control. They also assumed the poisonings were limited to the Chicago area. While the federal government issued an advisory, Tylenol remained on the shelves in most states.
Burke took further action, halting sales, production and advertising nationwide. He recalled every container in the country and offered to repurchase the bottles already in people’s medicine chests.
He set up a hotline for customers and offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the culprit’s arrest. He established a crisis team that met twice a day for six weeks.
He even invited Mike Wallace, the famed — and feared — producer of “Sixty Minutes” to film the crisis team in action.
Burke did not sanitize these sessions or pretend each executive was in agreement. They were dealing with a new type of crisis, and they knew it. In Burke’s words, “We let the debate rage.” Wallace captured, on air, a critical disagreement: whether to resume advertising.
The debate got to the heart of Burke’s conundrum: Were preserving the strength of the brand and protecting the public incompatible? Burke made a key distinction. He would protect the public first, and the brand in the long-term.
It’s impossible to read of Burke’s example and not wince at the counter example President Trump has set during the coronavirus epidemic. Burke acknowledged he didn’t know how widespread the danger was; Trump repeatedly minimized this crisis.
On Jan. 22, asked on CNBC whether there was a risk of a pandemic, Trump replied, “No, not at all. And we have it totally under control.” More than a month later, when the virus was spreading here, he said the number of cases in the United States would “soon be close” to zero.
Unlike Burke, who took questions with openness and humility, Trump has been evasive, critical (even of his own officials), self-inflating and often wrong.
Unlike Burke, who took responsibility for protecting customers, Trump has wallowed in conspiracy theories about Obama and “open borders.” When asked about the closing of the White House pandemic office — under his watch — he denied knowledge of who did it.
Unlike Burke, who took extraordinary preventive measures to ensure there weren’t more deaths, Trump frittered away six precious weeks. He failed to ramp up production of testing kits, leaving the country abysmally and woefully short as the pandemic hit home.
Unlike Burke, who warned customers to stay away from Tylenol already in their homes, Trump attempted to persuade Americans they had nothing to worry about — accentuating the risk of contagion. On Feb. 10, he said that in April the problem “miraculously goes away.” Nine days later — contradicting the country’s health officials — he said the virus was “very much under control.”
On Feb. 29, he said a vaccine would be developed “very quickly.” [David Leonhardt in the New York Times has compiled a useful list of Trump’s efforts to downplay the coronavirus.]
As recently as Friday, Trump overhyped the significance of a private website, implying it would help people around the country facilitate testing. “It’s going to be very quickly done,” he said. The website developer, Verily, a sister company of Google, responded it “is in the early stages of development” for a pilot project in the Bay Area and there is no timetable for a national rollout.
Burke and Trump behaved in diametrically opposite ways because their goals were different. Trump sought to minimize short-term alarm. He was obsessed with the cratering stock market. He blamed CNN and MSNBC for “panicking markets.” He blamed the Federal Reserve nearly every time he reached for Twitter. He reportedly ordered all federal health discussions of coronavirus be kept confidential. Trump operated from the faulty premise that if the severity of the crisis were minimized, the panic would abate.
In contrast, Burke understood the key to quelling a panic was earning the public’s trust. He viewed a short-term loss in sales as a small sacrifice for reassuring the public — and ultimately, in J & J’s interest. He described his approach then as “a moral imperative, as well as good business.”
Tylenol did return, of course — after J & J developed tamperproof, sealed packaging — which quickly became an industry norm. And Tylenol regained its top sales position.
Can the administration learn from such an example? Burke was known for promoting transparency long before the Tylenol crisis.
To say Trump does not have a history of transparency or candor is an understatement of painful proportion.
Those around him might consider Burke’s model. Hiding the severity of a crisis or deflecting blame will never win the public’s trust.