Monday, October 15, 2007

Quick! Run From the Crises!

In thinking about our topic of kairos, or timing of response to crises, I thought of Tylenol- a company who had the best timing in a PR crises ever. And Perrier- who did a terrible job. Let's think...

When a crisis erupts, a company must spring into action to save their tarnishing image. Rash planning becomes imperative to save not only a company but also often human lives. Often a general model can be established for hypothetical problems and concurring media relations. Many companies find themselves stumbling, such as the recent Merck and Vioxx legalities and the established Source Perrier catastrophe. Occasionally a company can barrel through the time of difficulty and come out stronger, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol.
In what is often considered one of the best handlings of a public relations crisis, Tylenol encountered problems in 1982 when seven people died in the Chicago area. These deaths, while at first appearing obscure and unrelated, resulted from Tylenol laced with 10,000 times the lethal dose of cyanide. As soon as suspicion turned towards the painkillers, announcements were made to avoid all Tylenol products, and the company had to act quickly to save themselves.

The company’s first objective was to handle the crisis, and their second was to handle the subsequent image problems. This ranking was of ultimate importance when their reliability was questioned. An immediate halt was put to all advertising and a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol, with a retail value of more than 100 million dollars, was implemented. Johnson & Johnson in a humanitarian attempt to find the killer issued a reward of $100,000. Finally, as outreach and psychological comfort, the company offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules that had already been purchased for Tylenol tablets.

In a five-pronged attack, Tylenol approached their social comeback. Like a determined debutante, Tylenol was introduced back into the market in tamper-proofed bottles. Coupons and discounts were coupled with a totally revamped advertising campaign. Direct, personal promotional presentations were also made to reassure the medical community of the safety of Tylenol.

In direct contrast with the brilliantly handled Tylenol case, Source Perrier, the lead importer of bottled water, also dealt with a crisis when traces of benzene were found in the water. Benzene is a poisonous liquid shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, although the traces were not in lethal amounts. The company hesitated in issuing a recall and limited the first recall to North America. After Dutch and Danish officials discovered results of benzene in Perrier, the recall became worldwide.

Source Perrier was discredited worldwide in large part because the company’s explanation for the recall kept changing. After traces of benzene were found in Perrier bottles in other parts of the world, company officials altered their original explanation. Meanwhile, Perrier still insisted that its famous spring in Vergeze, France was unpolluted. These inconsistent statements further raised consumers’ suspicions, and created an image of disregard for public safety.

Source Perrier and Merck have handled their problems by putting the company first in the crises, not the individuals directly affected. Source Perrier never managed to rise again to its climax of 1989, and Merck has a shaky future ahead. Tylenol approached the tragedy with visible empathy and managed to persevere by regaining strength and ensuring longevity.

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