Repeating History and Failing to Repeat History

By George Merlis Monday, September 13, 2010

The philosopher George Santayna is widely credited with the phrase, “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.”  What he actually wrote was “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Either way, it means pretty much the same thing: learn from past mistakes.

In the world of crisis response and crisis communications, the admirable history of Johnson & Johnson’s response to the 1982 Tylenol recall is studied in journalism, public relations and business courses. I use it in all crisis communications consultations I do because it is a textbook example of what to do.

In that classic case,  J & J recalled 31 million bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol after seven deaths in the Chicago area were linked to the drug.  It turned out the deaths were part of a murder or extortion scheme and were in no way J & J’s responsibility.  Someone stole packages of the drug from shelves in Chicagoland supermarkets and drugstores, adulterated the tablets with cyanide and then replaced the bottles on the shelves.

Despite intensive federal and local investigations no one has ever been charged with the murders.  A man named James W. Lewis was convicted of extortion when he demanded $1 million from J & J to stop the killings, but there wasn’t evidence to indicate Lewis was responsible for the tampering.  Johnson & Johnson won high praise for its swift action -- which cost it well in excess of $100 million. (Remember that’s $100 million in 1982 dollars.)  At the time, the Washington Post wrote, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”  J & J won further widespread praise for being open and honest with the public as well as a place in crisis response textbooks.

Fast forward to the present. Last month, the New York Times ran a lengthy story on its business pages headlined “In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do.” The story told of the numerous public relations pratfalls over the last several months by BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. The story makes me wonder if the executive corps of these companies had a Ferris Beuller day off when crisis communications was taught during their MBA programs, causing them to miss the lesson about Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol response.

The Times might have added another, far more ironic, corporate public relations pratfall to that story: Johnson & Johnson itself.  The company cited in the textbooks has had, over the last year, sluggish responses to breaking crises.  (Yes, that’s crises; plural!) This year, after 20 months of consumer complaints, J & J recalled batches of Benadryl, Motrin, Rolaids, Simply Sleep, St. Joseph Aspirin and -- compounding the irony --Tylenol because of a sickening smell suspected to be caused by contamination with a chemical bearing the tongue-tripping name 2,3,6-tribromoanisole.

In addition, J & J has multiple state attorneys general probing a series of other recalls of over-the-counter medications, the most serious being the firm’s reluctant April recall of 136 million bottles of liquid children’s medicines which had overly-high dosages of the active ingredient and contamination from metal particles.

The Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, William Weldon, is no carpetbagger hired from another company, but a lifelong J & J employee.  Even if Mr. Weldon missed class the day they taught the Tylenol lesson, it’s hard to fathom a long-term J & J executive not knowing about and following the example of the company’s bar-raising response to the 1982 crisis.

Belatedly, J & J announced a restructuring of its manufacturing procedures and the creation of a new executive charged with product quality. But the company’s earlier responses needlessly damaged its sterling reputation

If nothing else, the Johnson & Johnson response gives this new twist to George Santayana’s observation: “Those who cannot remember the glorious past are condemned to fail to repeat it.”

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