By Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development

Two weekends ago, I went up to Vermont to celebrate my uncle’s 90th birthday. This gave me an opportunity to ask him to reflect upon his long professional career. He worked for several years at Johnson & Johnson as a Chief Industrial Engineer.  He was very passionate about his job—always looking for ways to improve efficiency.

Given what we do here at Bates Communications, I asked him to reflect on the great or not so great moments of leadership he had experienced over the years. The most powerful story he told me concerned the horrendous Tylenol crisis in 1982. Even though it had happened three decades ago, his memories of the experience were vivid, and his emotions about it still ran deeply. “When I first heard that this awful thing was happening,” he said, “I was shocked. It was unthinkable that someone could do such an evil thing.” 

He spoke for a bit about what kind of person would have laced Tylenol capsules with potassium cyanide, leading to 12 deaths in the Chicago area. I can’t even repeat his opinion of what should be done to such a person, but suffice it to say that they were harsh words said through gritted teeth.

But the next startling development was the reaction of his senior leaders.  “I couldn’t believe how quickly they responded to the crisis.  It was truly amazing.”  Before he even knew what to think, he was required to attend cross-functional meetings at which the strategic and tactical game plan of response to the crisis was announced.

Within just seven days of the first death, Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall of all Tylenol.  That amounted to 31 million bottles of the pain reliever with a retail value of $100 million.  J&J also advertised nationally, advising the public to not consume any products containing acetaminophen.

These steps represented an incredible expense to the company, and you’d have to think that many companies would have opted to simply recall product from the Chicago region.  However, Johnson & Johnson lived—and still lives—by a credo which begins with the following: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be high quality.”  

Because the company already lived by a clear vision of how to act, there was absolutely no ambiguity as to the right and proper course of action to take in response to this “Black Swan” event.   In terms of communication strategy amidst crisis management, this case is still held up as a glowing example.

Even now, as a 90-year-old retiree, my uncle spoke with a quaking voice of how proud he felt of his company and its leaders at the incredibly difficult time.  “It was truly inspiring,” he said.

When I mentioned the credo to him, he chuckled and said, “It’s interesting, every place I ever worked had a credo or a mission statement… but that was the only place where it meant something. “ It sure did mean something to Johnson & Johnson’s customers and to everyone who worked for the company like my uncle.

Thinking of this today it makes me wonder: What are you doing as a leader to not just create a noble vision, but to make sure it permeates every decision that’s made up and down your organization?

You need to take action now—before a crisis hits.  Get expert assistance if you need it: We’ve helped many leaders create a communication strategy that starts with a powerful vision but doesn’t stop there.  The key is understanding all of the tools and processes necessary to overcome the communication gaps and bottlenecks that keep messages from connecting with all hands.  Once you have successfully implemented a communication strategy, then there will no debate about what to do—just how to do it.

As my uncle would tell you, there’s so much at stake.  Your ability to lead people to live by a vision will have a profound effect on your legacy with your employees, your customers, and perhaps even society at large.


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