The Covid Vaccine: Lessons From The Tylenol Crisis

In 1982, J&J CEO James Burke made all the right moves in a fear-based crisis to restore Tylenol sales and the company's corporate reputation. Here's how leading executives, who have a crucial role in vaccine compliance, can apply those lessons.

If Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol tampering crisis is considered the gold standard for reputation management and product comebacks, a successful Covid-19 vaccination program with top executive leadership will need to top it and become the platinum standard.

We all understand the stakes. After breakthrough science created vaccines in record time, we must now launch a global public health communications campaign to persuade our diverse populations that getting vaccinated enables us to take off our masks and resume normal lives. And responsible corporate, non-profit and association leaders have an enormous role to play in advocating fiercely for safe workplaces and safe communities.

My direct experience advising J&J CEO James Burke and business school case studies teach how the company leadership made all the right moves in a fear-based crisis to restore Tylenol sales and its corporate reputation. But let’s be clear, that was a brand under attack, not a country in a pandemic that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans. The Tylenol comeback successfully restored a more than 30% share of the over-the-counter pain relief market. In contrast, success for the Covid vaccine program will need at least 75% compliance. But is 75% good enough?

For any workplace to be truly back to normal, is there any reason not to strive for 100% compliance? And can it be done without mandates? I believe the answer to both these questions is yes. To get there will take calm, measured, fact-based and courageous leaders who will inspire team members and lead to a faster, and fuller reopening.

So, what are the enduring lessons from the Tylenol comeback that can be applied to 2021?

  1. Emphasize safety

2. Pick the right messages customized for the diverse 2021 workforce

3. Use credible and compelling messengers

4. Plan for the downsides and what ifs

5. Communicate in an omni-channel world

1. Everything begins with safety. Johnson & Johnson sent very clear messages that Tylenol was safe by developing triple seal packaging that went above and beyond what authorities requested to put the product back on store shelves. For the vaccine, CEOs should cite CDC and other authoritative information about the cutting-edge science used to create the vaccines. One leadership idea that will emphasize health and saftey: provide short-term paid time off if employees have a reaction to a vaccine.

2. Messaging needs to start with data and must also address the real issues that keep people away from health clinics and make them leery of science and medicine. Many African Americans are justifiably skeptical of vaccines based upon prior harm from government health programs, often referred to as the Tuskegee factor. Others are skeptical about the number of people of color in clinical trials. In contrast to CEOs not saying much after the George Floyd protests, leaders have an opportunity to bring the organization together with messages adapted in tone and language to the specific needs, ethnic composition and culture of their work force.

3. Who are the best messengers? Dr. Anthony Fauci is a demi-god to a high percentage of Americans. But does he play to all sub-populations? Could the best messengers be a church group, a rapper, an athlete or a cartoon character like Smokey the Bear? During the Tylenol crisis, James Burke exuded credibility to employees, investors and the general public. In 2021, select other leaders in addition to the CEO who provide the most sincere and empathetic messages that build morale and trust. For some employees, the best messenger could be the head of HR, a union leader, or a company nurse who took the vaccine so she can visit her elderly mother. You may need multiple messengers in many languages. Without this support, no vaccine has a way of cutting through the noise.

4. What could go wrong? If the vaccine provides protection for 90% of those who take both doses, what happens to the 10% for whom it doesn’t work? What will you do at your organization if there is reinfection in the office or warehouse? What proof will employers require to demonstrate immunity? What about religious exemptions? What are the rights of contractors? J&J developed back up plans for an uncharted environment. They made a promise, stayed the course and soon the safety provided the ultimate public validation.

There is no need to aggravate those with passionate negative convictions — read anti-vaxers — but sticking to core values will be the roadmap for a charged 2021. We’ll have lessons after the initial vaccinations of first responders, front line medical workers and at long-term care facilities. What will a few adverse events and reactions to the shots do to public confidence?

5. Communicate in all available channels. Perhaps the biggest difference between the Tylenol comeback and 2021’s vaccine effort: there was no internet or social media in 1982. There were three TV networks, and the media essentially agreed on all the key facts. Jim Burke had an easier time reaching employees and customers.

In today’s fractionated landscape, it’s almost impossible to reach all stakeholders with a single email blast or internal memo. The Biden administration, state and local health officials plan a multi-pronged effort to reach the broader population. The workplace is the proverbial “last mile” to reach the employee. Leaders should employ town halls, emails, Instagram posts, texts, old fashioned snail mail, zoom meetings with supervisors – whatever it takes to reach all of your employees.

To be clear, the Tylenol lessons are not a 2021 playbook; there are myriad differences between 1982 and today. But it took committed leadership then to stage a bold comeback campaign and the same will be true in the first half of 2021.

Like J&J’s corporate management a generation ago with a triple-sealed Tylenol cap, leaders today can join public health officials in defeating Covid, saving jobs and building consumer confidence. That would be a shot of good news for us all.

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