James E. Burke, the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, passed away on September 28, 2012, at the age of 87. He led the company as chairman and chief executive from 1976 to 1989, overseeing a vast growth of products, international expansion, and a tripling of total sales.
Yet, these accomplishments are not what James Burke is remembered for. His legacy was shaped by his handling of the Tylenol recall in 1982, when seven people died in Chicago after being poisoned by Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide by an unknown serial killer. The New York Times portrait of Burke in his obituary highlights this viewpoint. It hardly mentions his other achievements as a leader of Johnson & Johnson, and dedicates almost two-thirds of the entire obituary exclusively to his handling of the Tylenol crisis. Even nearly 30 years later, the Tylenol recall remains the textbook example of how to manage a corporate crisis. Indeed, modern crisis management arguably started with Burke’s handling of the Tylenol recall.
His forceful, candid, and empathetic approach set the standard for modern corporations. Johnson & Johnson spent more than $100 million pulling more than 32 million Tylenol bottles from the shelves, followed by the introduction of tamperproof packaging. During the crisis, Burke never got sidetracked by the question of guilt, but focused on the most important issue: protecting customer safety and maintaining their trust. It is a powerful reminder of one the fundamental tenets of successful crisis management: seize the decisive moment where customers and the public are really paying attention. Burke later stated the recall was one of the easiest decisions of his life. All he had to do was to apply the company’s value statement, the famed Johnson & Johnson Credo.