Jack O'Dwyer, in his PR blog, reminds us that this is the 30th anniversary of the Tylenol poisoning scare.
For those readers under 50, this may not have much meaning. Jack gives a good rundown of the scare, which grabbed the nation's headlines and dominated the news for weeks. To sum it up briefly, several people died in the Chicago area after taking Tylenol that had been tainted with cyanide, evidently done intentionally. Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson, a trusted household name, found itself in the middle of a giant PR crisis. Even before the company advised stores to clear the shelves of the product, stores themselves took the step. Not that anyone would go out and purchase a bottle of Tylenol Extra-Strength at that time, as headlines screamed off the pages and TV news covered every aspect of the tainted product.
The episode led to some things we now take for granted. Tamper-proof packaging is now the norm, and hardly anyone would now buy or use any medicine or food product whose packaging or seal has been compromised in any way.
For the business community, the event marked the start of what we now call Crisis PR or Crisis Planning. This is not to suggest that crisis planning never took place before the Tylenol scare, but it is now a fairly routine part of many organizations' thinking. Companies whose products are sold to or used by the public often have crisis plans in place, in anticipation of any number of things that might occur. Manufacturers often have plans in place should there be an accident at a plant, or an event that could endanger workers and the neighboring community. Airlines, railroads, truck and freight lines have plans in place in case of a disaster. Even fast-food chains have plans for handling situations ranging from food poisoning to mass shootings in one of their restaurants.
It's unfortunmate we have to think in these terms, but hey... stuff happens.
As PR people, it's part of our responsibility to assist with planning in the event of a crisis. It means trying to anticipate all the crazy things that could happen, and having a basic plan in place for informing the people impacted -- employees, families of employees, neighbors, customers and vendors, shareholders, local officials and beyond, as appropriate, police and other safety agencies, and the list can go on and on and on.
Planning needs to have a well-defined chain of command -- with alternatives in the event key people are unreachable -- and with specific people tasked with the responsibility of handling communications with the media and the various publics involved. Communications should strive to impart information as available and as confirmed as accurate, and not try to hide or cover things up. Lying and covering-up may work for the moment, but it WILL be found out, adding even more damage to the organization's reputation.
Good planning and proper communications can be a major factyor in how quickly a company can regain the public's trust and their business.
Many of these things were not thought about before the Tylenol scare. We've learned a lot in the past 30 years.
Jack O'Dwyer has other thoughts on the issue.