The Passing of a Crisis Management Icon

Larry Foster died recently, and with his passing the world has lost a true pioneer in crisis management.

Larry foster, crisis management icon

Larry foster, crisis management icon

Larry was vice president in charge of public relations at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson when the infamous Tylenol poisonings occurred in 1982. For those with short memories, that was when someone put cyanide in the company’s Tylenol capsules – back when pull-apart capsules were still sold in over-the-counter products – then resealed the packages and replaced them on store shelves in Chicago. Seven people died. It was a heinous act and the first case of terrorism reaching into America’s medicine chests.

J&J assembled a seven-man crisis management team, headed by Jim Burke, then the company’s chairman and CEO. But it was Foster, who served as a close advisor to Burke and who was on the team, who helped put together the incredibly effective crisis response strategy that remains to this day the gold standard in crisis management. That strategy, simply stated, was to put consumer safety first, respond to the media with speed, and to be entirely honest at all times.

The company quickly issued a  voluntary nationwide recall of the product, taking a $100 million loss, even as the FBI pleaded with J&J to leave the product on the shelves, in the hope it would help them catch the culprit. But putting consumer safety first made the company’s recall decision a no-brainer.

Conventional wisdom at the time said the brand could not possibly survive.

This would be a good time to put to rest a malingering falsehood that has circulated for more than 30 years. There’s an old saying, which John F. Kennedy was fond of quoting, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Since the incredible success of the Tylenol crisis management efforts, several public relations firms have claimed they were part of that team. They were not. The crisis management decisions on how to respond to the then-unprecedented crisis were made internally, by the seven-man team. No outside firms were involved.

Six weeks after the recall, the company successfully reintroduced Tylenol in new, triple-seal, tamper resistant packaging, and soon reclaimed its full market share. By the way, if you struggle in the morning to tear open that new box of cereal, you can thank – or curse – J&J. All consumer product companies quickly realized their own vulnerability and repackaged their products to make it obvious if someone had opened the box in the store before you.

About a year after the crisis had passed and tens of thousands of stories had been written worldwide, Foster made a command decision that J&J would no longer grant interviews on the crisis or how the company responded. He did not want J&J and its employees to keep revisiting the past and dredging up the horror story. As a result, for years the company firmly turned down every interview request that came along.

But Larry Foster made an exception for me.

At the time, I was writing what became the first book ever written on crisis management: Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable. I wanted to include several case studies as an important learning tool for America’s businesses, and I felt the book would not be complete without the Tylenol story. Larry thought it would be an important book and he agreed to open up the company’s wounds one last time. And so I traveled to New Jersey and spent an entire day interviewing Larry and other members of the crisis management team and J&J’s leadership. I wanted to understand how those seven men were able to come to the tough decisions they did in such uncharted territory, and in the face of unrelenting stress – from the public, the media, the government and their shareholders. I was surprised at their candor, and at what I learned. The result of that interview – which I was told was the last the company ever gave on the crisis – is recounted in my first book, cited above.

And my insider’s understanding of that crisis and the crisis management response has proved invaluable in my daily work with clients.

To this day I still get letters and e-mails from people, mostly college students, asking questions about my Tylenol case study. Several people told me over the years that the company still refused to grant interviews on the Tylenol crisis; instead, Larry would simply refer them to my book and tell them everything they’d want to know is in there. 

(Click here to read the New York Times’ obituary on Larry Foster.)

One final note: Those who have read my most recent book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, and the chapter on the Penn State crisis, are well aware of how I feel the school’s Board of Trustees failed the university during those dark days. For many years, Larry was a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, and I can’t help but think how things might have turned out differently for the school had the Board been privy to Larry’s wise counsel.

Larry Foster died recently, and with his passing the world has lost a true pioneer in crisis management. 

And I lost a good friend.