PR Case Study: Tylenol Cyanide Crisis

In 1982 Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol faced a severe blow to their brands reputation after someone tampered with their pills. These manipulated pills resulted in 7 deaths of residents on the Westside of Chicago. After the news of the cyanide-laced bottles spread, a panic across the country ensued. What followed was not only one of the greatest crisis management plans of the time, but also set the norm for future catastrophes. Johnson & Johnson’s concern for the public and emphasis on safety over profits made their public relations campaign extremely successful, rescuing them from what many thought was inevitable destruction. However, although many of their tactics are still relevant today Tylenol would have to use influencers to salvage their brand in the internet age.

The company decided to handle their crisis in two phases. Johnson & Johnson’s first phase was to handle the actual disaster at hand. The company decided to put their customers concerns before profit. They first warned customers to stay away from their products until the issue had been dealt with and announced a recall, an action that cost the company approximately $100 million. Tylenol also halted both advertising and production. Selfless decisions such as these won over media outlets like the Washington Post. The Washington Post even stated that “Johnson & Johnson effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster” (Axia PR).  This type of positive media coverage of their efforts helped establish Tylenol’s reputation as a company that cares about its public. Once they were able to position themselves as a brand that cares and quelled the hysteria, Tylenol began to give discounts and coupons for all their products.

The second phase was intended to be the comeback of the brand. Tylenol, which was the top alternative to aspirin, already had plans for an enormous advertising campaign. However, after the crisis Tylenol knew that their job was to convince the public that not only were the products on the shelves safe, but that in the future tampering with these products would not be possible again. They also had over 2,000 sales personnel present to the medical community in an effort to persuade them to support Tylenol once again. The campaign to emphasize the safety of Tylenol also included advertisements about the newly redesigned tamper-proof seals and statements updated the public on the brand’s road to recovery.

This campaign was extremely successful. After other brands had put their own corporate interests ahead of their customer’s wellbeing Tylenol set a new standard. By making sure that their customers were alright and emphasizing a relation of trust between the brand and its public Tylenol was able to rebound from what was believed to be an imminent catastrophe. The success is not only demonstrated by the fact that many people still use Tylenol today but also by the company being up to 24% on the stock market only 6 weeks after the crisis began, the brand was at 37% before the incident. Tylenol is still one of the best-selling painkillers in the world because of their public relations team’s great work salvaging their reputation.

In 2017, many of Tylenol’s strategies would still be very relevant and are even used by companies during their own crises. For example, Chipotle used status updates and coupons in a similar way to Tylenol handled their situation. However, in the present day Tylenol should also use social media to their advantage. Starting sponsorships with popular YouTubers and those with strong Instagram or Twitter followings. In the present-day many publics are influenced by social media users on various sites. By sponsoring family YouTube vlog channels or Twitter accounts for various episodes it will convince people that these “picture perfect” families even trust this brand with their spouses and children. As superficial as it might look, many people use these families or couples as inspiration and what they do or use impacts future purchases for their viewers.


Axia Public Relations. (2013, March 02). PR Success Stories: Tylenol Crisis Averted with Responsive Crisis PR. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from

Kaplan, T. (n.d.). The Tylenol Crisis: How Effective Public Relations Saved Johnson & Johnson. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from

*This was originally written as a class assignment for the Spring 2017 semester


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