J&J Faces New Headache From Exec's Book on Tylenol Cyanide Murders

Last Updated Sep 13, 2011 12:32 AM EDT

Former Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) drug sales rep Scott Bartz will on Sept. 26 officially release The Tylenol Mafia, an alternative history of the murders of seven people in the Chicago area in 1982 via cyanide-laced Tylenol.

The book is likely to become a PR headache for J&J because Bartz is a former eight-year employee of J&J who has a pending whistleblower lawsuit against the company alleging that it has falsely inflated its sales of the antipsychotic Risperdal.

Traditionally, J&J's response to the 1982 Tylenol killings is regarded as the gold standard of crisis response in PR: J&J got out in front of the story, announced it was pulling all product from the shelves, and only reintroduced the brand after equipping Tylenol bottles with the safety caps that are now de rigeur on medicines.

The alternative history of those events has for years been curated by Jack O'Dwyer, editor of O'Dwyer's PR newsletter. He insists 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.

Either way, J&J's response of 1982 makes its current handling of Tylenol -- 16 Tylenol-related product recalls since 2009 -- look like the more damaging disaster.

And now comes Bartz's book. It's not clear whether Bartz has anything new to bring to the story. A YouTube video suggests Bartz will allege that J&J knew "evidence was planted ... and they kept quiet about it. Now that constitutes accessory to murder." The FBI contacted Bartz in 2008, he claims, and in 2009 a grand jury reconvened and demanded the DNA of Unambomber Ted Kaczynski, currently serving life sentences for sending letter bombs to academics and admen.

The video also discusses the familiar, and entirely speculative, history of J&J's links to the media: That former CEO James Burke was the Harvard roommate of fellow board member Thomas Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities and owner of ABC in 1985. Burke's brother Daniel Burke was CEO of Capital Cities ABC five years before Disney bought the company. Both Burkes were directors at the Washington Post. Daniel Burke's older son Bill Burke worked with CNN founder Ted Turner on his biography. Daniel's other son Stephen Burke is the current president of Comcast, which purchased NBC in 2010, and sits on the current board of JP Morgan alongside current J&J CEO Willian Weldon.

Why any of these people would have an interest in covering up sabotage of Tylenol isn't explained, of course.