Mark, Take a Tylenol


The tampering of J&J’s Tylenol is without doubt the most cited case in the annals of crisis communications. Today The New York Times used it again in the context of lessons learned for Newsweek to pay heed. The quote by the PR industry’s eminence grise, Harold Burson (a mentor to this blogger for more than a decade), and counselor to J&J back then, eloquently captures the underlying tenets of good crisis management: “We expressed genuine regret and took the hit, and made an honest effort to get the facts out. And we tried to behave with the public interest at heart…”

I believe that Newsweek’s top editor Mark Whitaker is acting in the same spirit of J&J’s CEO James Burke when the latter allowed a “60 Minutes” crew into his company’s crisis war room. Whitaker and his team have made a genuine effort to demonstrate transparency as they set out to unearth what went wrong.

Still, while the crises that befell both Tylenol and Newsweek ended in death, the analogy is not a good one. J&J was victimized. Newsweek, probably not.

Can the magazine play the victim card to regain public trust? Yes. But media fragmentation and rampant ideology make the prospect much more dicey…at least compared to a time long ago when a single “60 Minutes” segment could silence all naysayers.