Johnson & Johnson is best known in PR circles for its remarkable work to protect the public and save the Tylenol brand. That was nearly 27 years ago. For those who don't remember, someone remixed the contents of Tylenol capsules with cyanide and placed them back on shelves at supermarkets and drug stores in the Chicago area in 1982. Seven people died and the entire country was fearful.

I was in college when the Tylenol murders occured, but I did have a firsthand view of the impact of that crisis five years later as a journalist in the Chicago area. In covering the fifth anniversary, we spoke with some of the family members who lost loved ones. It was heart breaking.

The crime was never solved.

The Tylenol case is held up as a best practice in public relations not for what Johnson & Johnson said but for what the company's leaders did. They stopped production and issued a nationwide product recall costing an estimated $100 million. In the ensuing months, Telenol completely reinvented the way pharmaceuticals were packaged, making tampering all but impossible.

Even though Johnson & Johnson was not at fault for the crime, it assumed responsibility. It was swift, definitive action.

A great overview is here.

The reason Johnson & Johnson is on the crisis radar today is the company's less-than-impressive response to a controversy over an advertisement for Motrin on the Internet. In no way do I intend to suggest that the Motrin controversy rises to the level of the Tylenol murders. Nobody was hurt, let alone killed.
Plenty has been reported on the controversy, but suffice it to say that the ad, which was intended to recognize and celebrate moms instead mocked them. It suggested that moms view their babies as mere accessories.

Moms reacted negatively and loudly over the weekend using social media tools such as Twitter to spread their anger. To Johnson & Johnson's credit, they reacted within 24 hours by promising to remove the offending ad and Kathy Widmer, VP of Marketing, sent this note to one of the self-proclaimed leaders of the anti-Motrin army:

I am the Vice President of Marketing for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. I have responsibility for the Motrin Brand, and am responding to concerns about recent advertising on our website. I am, myself, a mom of 3 daughters.
We certainly did not mean to offend moms through our advertising. Instead, we had intended to demonstrate genuine sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their babies. We believe deeply that moms know best and we sincerely apologize for disappointing you. Please know that we take your feedback seriously and will take swift action with regard to this ad. We are in process of removing it from our website. It will take longer, unfortunately, for it to be removed from magazine print as it is currently on newstands and in distribution.

On their own blog,, Kathy wrote,

Now as you can imagine, we certainly didn’t mean to offend moms through our advertising. As a mom of three girls, I understand many of the comments made and agree that we know what’s best for our kids and for ourselves.
On behalf of McNeil, I’m sorry if you found this advertisement insulting.

Now, as a person who has been married for 24 years, I may have an advantage in knowing how to apologize. Kathy's apology isn't great. She said she was sorry for how the community reacted to what Johnson & Johnson did rather than sorry for what Johnson & Johnson had done to elicit the anger. Pretty simple. But it is profoundly different. She is not taking responsibility for the mistake.

Below are the five elements of an effective apology.

  • Take responsibility as soon as possible. Apologize as soon after the offense as possible.
  • Describe what you did. Don't be vague or use euphemisms that attempt to tidy up your mess. A short, direct statement followed by a brief explanation of the circumstances to provide context.
  • Express remorse. Make your apology as heartfelt as you can without assuming liability. Tone is important here. The statement must reflect genuine remorse.
  • Shut up. Afterward, be quiet and listen while people tell you how angry they are. If it's really bad, they'll call for your head. Know that you've done the right thing and time is on your side.
  • Make it right. In such situations, what you DO always trumps what you SAY. Therefore, symbolic gestures matter as you attempt to correct the problem and compensate those who have been wronged.

 Hopefully, Johnson & Johnson will learn from this experience and will use it to improve the way they connect with their communities. One thing is for sure, communicators continue to learn from what Johnson & Johnson does -- whether right or wrong.