Lothery & Associates

Penn State Needs a Tylenol Moment

Picture it, October 1982…the number one leading OTC pain medication is removed from shelves after seven people died in Chicago from Cyanide, Extra Strength Tylenol. At the time, the Johnson & Johnson product made up 37% of the market with revenues around $1.2 Million. That was a lot of money back then. They didn’t say,

  • “Oh it was just seven people I’m sure it will be over soon.”
  • “It’s only in Chicago, so let’s pull the medicine from the store(s) where the contaminated pills were found.”
  • No one can contaminate a whole product line, so let’s keep whatever revenue we can still bring in.”

What they said was, TAKE IT OFF. TAKE IT ALL OFF THE SHELVES NOW. As a reward for this effort the company lost a whopping $100 Million in sales, and destroyed bottles. They stopped all advertisements, and invested in product research to create new safety enhanced bottles, with tamperproof caps. Yep. They started it. The REAL reward, however, was when Tylenol returned to the market, with a sales force of 2250 people making presentations to show off the new safety measures and discount pricing, Tylenol quickly returned to the top of the market. They are still the most trusted brand, and survived the crisis because they did the following core concepts of Crisis Management:

  • People before profits
  • Do more than expected
  • Act swiftly and strongly

So why this trip back in history? By now we’ve all read some or all of Louis Freeh’s report on the handling of the Jerry Sandusky crisis, and the finding that the four biggest names at the school all “concealed information” about Sandusky’s inappropriate and criminal behavior against young boys. No one spoke with Sandusky when allegations were raised more than a decade ago. And when clear evidence of wrongdoing was present, no one thought to fire the esteemed assistant coach. Why? There was a fear about what the scandal would do to the reputation and brand of the college and the football program. Think about it, there were only two victims at that time. Had they “gone Johnson & Johnson” on Sandusky back then, they wouldn’t have had more than 15 more victims that followed.

Freeh Report on Sandusky Sex Abuse Scandal (Video)

TAKE HIM OFF. TAKE HIM OFF THE SIDELINES NOW. That should have been the immediate response. Sure, innocent until proven guilty and all of that. But it means you actually have to attempt to prove innocence or guilt. Not just sweep it under the rug as if it never happened. As my father and grandmother used to say, “you can only sweep dirt under the rug for so long, before the bumps start to appear.” Enter Pennsylvania State Attorney General. In November 2011, they found the lumpy rug and all heck broke loose. Allegations, victims, terminations, resignations, Joe Paterno’s death, and legacy destroyed. It all brings us to July 12, 2012 where former FBI Director, Louis Freeh produces his report from a lengthy investigation that shows Penn State did none of the three core concepts. They put their name and brand before people; they did much less than the law requires, let alone what morality expects; and they didn’t act at all, let alone swiftly.

There’s no crystal ball that says when anyone’s next crisis will hit. I advise my media training clients that they should always brace for the worst and hope for the best. Be ready to go the extra mile if a crisis happens, so you can come out stronger on the other side. Failing to do so not only increases the size of the blow out, but it also lengthens the news cycle of the story. The news media is going to spend the weekend and first part of next week, barring any newly emerging “sexier headlines,” picking apart the report, the people named, those unnamed, what it’s going to cost the university financially, and in reputation. They’ll talk about possible consequences to the sports program, and as trials unfold, what is happening to whom and is this the appropriate result. They’ll talk about what Joe Paterno’s real legacy will be, and whether they will keep his name and face so prominently on campus. Had they all followed the core principles of Crisis Management, this story would have been a week long, at best, back in 1997, and it would have produced several heroes, instead of once worshiped icons who have fallen from grace.

Penn State appears to have learned its lesson, by accepting full responsibility for not taking action. Good rebound, but wouldn’t it have been better (financially and in branding) if they swooped in to save the day, and rid the campus of a sexual predator nearly 15 years ago? After every poorly managed crisis, I continue to direct people back to October 1982…Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol. They will always be the platinum standard for crisis management. The short term pain will always be wiped away by the long term benefits.


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