by Steve Adubato, PhD

Former Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke passed away recently. Burke is noted for many things as the leader of Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 1989. However, his most impressive leadership moment came when the company’s back was against the wall in the 1982 Tylenol / cyanide-lacing scare.

Even though it has been 30 years, this case still resonates as a classic example of how a CEO must communicate in a crisis and lead his company—as well as key stakeholders—through very difficult, challenging and unpredictable waters.

In case you don’t remember, seven people died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol that was laced with cyanide. Without knowing the extent of the problem or how the tampering occurred, Johnson & Johnson proactively recalled all Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area, where the original deaths occurred. They also made an immediate decision that full and timely disclosure was critical if they were to survive this crisis.

James Burke was extremely hands on, communicating directly with reporters. He was the face and the brand of Johnson & Johnson during the company’s most difficult public hour. Johnson & Johnson immediately informed the Chicago Sun Times—no cover-up here. Burke then conducted a press conference that was transmitted to nearly thirty different locations where reporters had gathered from around the country. He allowed them to ask questions and answered each one as directly as he could given the information he had.

Of course, at the time, there was no 24/7 cable news world, nor was there YouTube, Google, Twitter, cell phones or bloggers to complicate the crisis communication for Johnson & Johnson. However, Burke took advantage of the resources that were available at the time—such as full-page ads in major newspapers—to get the warning out to the public about the dangers that might exist with Extra Strength Tylenol. He set up a 24-hour hotline operated by medical and health experts to answer the more than 200,000 calls that would come in from fearful consumers. All of these actions further reinforced Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to keeping the public safe and informed.

Another important factor in the success of James Burke’s communication strategy was that he acted quickly. Too often, CEOs will delay any communication with key stakeholders until they have “all the information”. However, this approach can backfire if it is seen as an attempt to delay, stall or worse, cover-up a mistake or an oversight. Even if all the facts are not yet in, quick action shows a sense of responsiveness to the public, which in turn builds back customer loyalty.

Because of Burke and Johnson & Johnson’s handling of this incident, they were not seen as a corporate villain, but instead the “victim” of some dangerous killer who was targeting the company. There was a sense of empathy on behalf of the general public that was further enhanced by Johnson & Johnson’s willingness to be open and honest when mistakes or misstatements were made. This all involves one of the most important elements in surviving and overcoming any crisis—TRUST. It was this level of trust that enabled Johnson & Johnson’s brand to recover at the time.