J&J's Tylenol Recalls Boost Dissident's Alternate History of the 1982 Cyanide Crisis

Last Updated May 12, 2010 5:38 PM EDT

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)'s recent Tylenol struggles have given new impetus to one man's long, lonely fight to debunk the idea that J&J's handling of the 1982 Tylenol cyanide sabotage murders is "the gold standard" of crisis response that PR people should learn from.

Jack O'Dwyer of O'Dwyer's PR newsletter has for years been telling anyone who will listen that J&J didn't act quickly when it learned of the cyanide (it took five days to respond); that it should never have been selling capsules that opened so easily; and that J&J litigated against the families of the seven people who were murdered.

The lesson here for managers is that the Web keeps history alive forever, so be careful what you do. Fifteen years ago a company could screw up, rebuild its image, and then rewrite history at will because checking old facts required the effort of physically visiting a library or research archive. Now, any dramatic event can continue living -- or even be reborn -- on the Web at any given moment. From a PR point of view, managers should regard ancient history as a set of current events that could revisit them without warning.

Jack O'Dwyer O'Dwyer's main bugbear is the way PR professionals, academics and journalists consistently refer to the J&J's response to the cyanide crisis as "the gold standard" in PR. O'Dwyer writes:

Only one book accurately portrays what happened in 1982 -- "Damage Control," authored in 2007 by former Reagan White House communications staffer Eric Dezenhall.
He notes that the capsules were not pulled off the market until the next week and after another near-murder in Oroville, Calif.
Dezenhall says that J&J, with its advertising and PR might, "ushered in a new wrinkle in crisis management: proselytizing how well the company has handled the crisis itself."
One reason the cyanide killings are being brought up in the media is because J&J's response to the current Tylenol recalls has been so lame -- waiting two years or more before acting -- compared to its 1982 response. O'Dwyer's Zinn-esque "People's History of Tylenol" has yet to catch on in the mainstream press. J&J should hope it stays that way.