(C) Johnson & Johnson

In September 1982, the world was shocked at the cyanide deaths of seven people in the Chicago area.  It was soon followed with the discovery that Tylenol was the common link.  Johnson & Johnson mounted a total recall of Tylenol, halted production and distribution of the product and broadcast warnings to hospitals and distributors as well as the public, Chicago police even went through neighborhoods using loudspeakers to broadcast the warnings.  When you consider that an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, the task may seem too big.  But at an estimated cost of over $100 million, the job was done.  And while Johnson & Johnson took a hit fiscally, Tylenol bounced back within a year to again be the biggest over-the-counter pain reliever on the market.

It’s a classic case study in how to handle a crisis – there’s really no other word to describe the situation.

Lately, we’ve been seeing a crisis of similar proportions – Samsung tablets and phones catching fire without warning.  They have been banned from airliners, trains and even subways.  If you have one, you’re need to replace it.

Now Samsung has taken steps – production and sales have been halted after an earlier attempt at a fix failed.  Now they are offering another Samsung phone as a replacement.

But the situation, and the public’s expectations, have changed.  Governments are much more likely to demand recalls.  And unless you move very quickly, the perception will be that you are responding to the government rather than your goodwill.  Even if you do respond before the government decides, it’s likely that the news will report that the government was planning action – giving the impression that you are driven by fear, not the good of the customer.  And the default perception of any company today is that they are driven by the profit motive, not the public’s interest.

Because that is what helped Johnson & Johnson.  They appeared to be acting in the public’s best interest instead of being forced.  They got ahead of the public’s expectations.

That is the lesson to be learned – get ahead of the public expectations.

*Chicago-strength Tylenol – a Hutchison family term used for the strongest possible pain relief when someone has a really bad headache.

PS  Since this post was written, it has been reported that Samsung washing machines are exploding in addition to their phones!  Apparently they don’t handle heavy loads very well.  Does Samsung not have real people doing their product testing?


A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.