For decades, conventional wisdom too often has judged an organization's response to a crisis by comparing it to two archetypes of crisis communication response: Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol crisis of 1982 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
As I wrote in the preface to FEEDING FRENZY:
In the case of the Tylenol poisonings, the company is said to have acted swiftly and courageously in recalling its product, communicating effectively, then reintroducing Tylenol in tamper-resistant packaging, leading ultimately to an increase in its market share. And in the case of the Valdez oil spill, Exxon is depicted as being slow to act, indecisive and callous, stonewalling and recalcitrant, only stepping up to its full responsibility to the Alaskan environment after being skewered in the court of public opinion and seeing its corporate reputation suffer.
Like all archetypes, each of these benchmarks are more purely black or white as case studies than they ever were in real life. For example, in oft-repeated mythology, upon learning of the poisonings in Chicago, J&J's CEO acted "immediately" to order a complete recall, thereby creating the "24-hour standard" for action in a crisis. In actuality, J&J CEO James Burke learned of the deaths on Wed. Sept. 30, 1982 and did not convene a meeting on the problem until the following Monday. Since all of the initial poisonings had taken place in Chicago, J&J made the logical decision to ask stores in the Chicago area to remove the capusules from their shelves. But the following week brought news of a poisoning in California, prompting the company to voluntarily recall Tylenol nationwide. James Lukaszewski calls the Tylenol legend a "fairytale." Jack O'Dwyer and Tony Jaques also cite numerous faults in J&J's response in the 1982 crisis. But they are decidedly in the minority--the web is full of positive references to the "Tylenol crisis case study" (Google brings up 53,800 references, nearly all gushingly positive).
Also to be noted are other hazards in lookng to J&J for inspiration on how to quickly rebuild a brand after a crisis. J&J's fabled 1982 recall was in response to the despicable actions of an unknown assailant--not mistakes the company had made. So it wasn't too difficult to win over public sympathy. As Eric Dezenhall wrote: "A company attacked by a criminal will be forgiven more quickly than one accused of being the criminal."
Perhaps a more useful case study would be to examine how J&J succeeded in creating the powerful and enduring consensus of the "Tylenol gold standard of crisis management."
J&J itself has failed to live up to its own myth. J&J was recently accused of having hired contractors to pose as shoppers and quietly buy up medicines suspected of being dangerously defective rather than undertake the expense of a recall. In testimony to Congress last month, J&J CEO William Weldon denied the "phantom recall,' but did concede that "We let the public down."
Likewise, Exxon undoubtedly did many things right after the Valdez spill that were long ago dismissed as irrelvent to the enduring lesson of the myth.
Now that we are three decades removed from the Tylenol and Valdez crises, it's clearly time to look to more recent cases to guide contemporary crisis work, if for no other reason than because the communication environment has changed so radically since the 1980s. The crisis managers at J&J and Exxon did not have to deal with 24-7 news cycles, let alone pervasive and uncontrollable social media. J&J's response time in 1982 would be seen as far too slow today--and the company would not have been able to perpetuate a myth after the fact that it acted "immediately." The Internet today records real-time events for scrutiny forever more.
It's not hard to find contemporary examples of crisis communication failures--BP and Toyota come quickly to mind. Indeed, we see the Valdez disaster slowly passing from popular memory. But J&J's lock on the "gold standard" continues to endure. That's because the response to a complex crisis is rarely, if ever, so perfect. Communications professionals and crisis managers are better served by case studies that examine the good and the bad, the correct and the errant, in a multi-dimensional and lengthy crisis.