James E. Burke

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James E. Burke is the former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Johnson & Johnson (1976 - 1989), and he is presently the Chairman of the Board of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, vice chair of the Concord Coalition, and on the advisory board of the Children's Scholarship Fund. [1][2]

Tylenol Poisoning Response Not So Great

Burke is frequently lauded for his role in leading Johnson & Johnson's (J&J's) response to seven deaths from poisoned Tylenol capsules in 1982. In May 2007, Fortune magazine called the response the corporate world's "gold standard in crisis control." [3]

But, as O'Dwyer's PR Daily pointed out following the Fortune story, the Tylenol poisoning response is frequently misrepresented. PR executive James Lukaszewski once called the Tylenol story "a myth," pointing out that then-J&J CEO James Burke learned about the deaths on a Wednesday but didn't hold a staff meeting to discuss how to respond until the following Monday. "Think about that," Lukaszewski stressed. "What started on Monday was an enormous debate within the organization as to what to do about [the murders]." [4]

J&J also "tried to localize the problem, recalling two batches that were circulated in the Chicago area." A wider recall wasn't launched until "after another attempted poisoning using Tylenols took place on the following Tuesday in Oroville, Calif." And "while Burke has been lauded for his openness with the press, he did not hold a press conference." The problem was the capsules, which "some pharmacists would not stock," because they "could easily be taken apart and 'spiked.'" After another Tylenol capsule poisoning in New York in 1986, Burke admitted he was sorry that the company "did not stop making Tylenols in capsules after the Chicago murders." Relatives of the Chicago victims "said J&J should have known that the capsules were vulnerable to tampering and at least put warnings on the bottles," according to O'Dwyer's. [5]

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  1. Trustees, Urban Institute, accessed August 29, 2008.

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