A classic case study in the history of public relations is the handling by Johnson and Johnson of the Tylenol tragedy in which capsules laced with cyanide were discovered to be the cause of death of seven people in the Chicago area. Because of J&J’s swift action, pulling Tylenol off the shelves of the nation’s retailers, the company in time was able to bring the product back to market and restore the brand’s image. In other words, they utilized a recall and continuous communication from top management to turn a tragedy into a public relations success story. That was 1983.
Fast forward to 2010 and Toyota, by some accounts, is employing similar tactics in halting production and sales of eight of its vehicles. That action is in addition to the massive recall of several million vehicles. According to one pr case book I consulted, the lessons of the Tylenol incident include: candor with the public, integrity of the brand, proactive leadership by management, and effective feedback mechanisms. So, many companies, including GM, Firestone, Johns Manville and Proctor and Gamble, chose in years past not to follow what in retrospect seems like the commonsense public relations practiced by J&J.
But I don’t think the problem that J&J faced and the one Toyota faces are as parallel as some seem to think. First, J&J’s problem was domestic; Toyota’s is global. Communication media are vastly different now, especially with regard to the ways in which consumers participate in the process. Just do a Twitter search on the word “Toyota” to see what people are saying about the recall. Or go to YouTube and view some of the myriad videos that have been posted regarding this issue. J&J was better able to control the output of their communication, to offer up their corporate leader as chief spokesperson, and to time their communication efforts to their advantage. With Toyota, the media environment is 24/7. And, everyone is or can be a spokesperson on the issue: the president of Toyota doesn’t command any more presence or authority than Joe the Blogger. In an age of participatory media, it will be interesting to see how this issue unfolds and whether or not it will become a model for a world enveloped by social media, and whether like Tylenol, it will find a place in the annals of future public relations textbooks.