Lessons for Toyota from the past – Tylenol 1982


 Look at how Johnson & Johnson handled Tylenol in 1982 – people died it was a public relations/crisis management nightmare the company should have planned for but did not. Just like Toyota. 

OK, it was a different pre-internet, pre-social media age – and ‘speed’ of message is more damaging and can wound a large corporate beast in hours. However, it reinforces the values of openess, moving quickly to put measures in place to mediate the problem. Frankness, responsiveness and dedication to get it right not on one day but over time paid off for Johnson & Johnson. The reputation of the company actually ROSE as a result of this horrific incident thanks to the vigorous and proactive way they responded.  And the explaining did not stop a few weeks later – presentations on the issue went on for several months if not years – so that valuable lessons could be shared and learnt. Each and every car company is the ‘potential next victim’ and Toyota should consider sharing the lessons learnt with the whole industry. If one company is hit – they are all hit – hence they should all learn from the Toyota mistakes.

All these Johnson & Johnson values, seen in the Tylenol Case, (included in how they responded) remain no different today and should be simply adapted for the new channels of communications that deliver them. Then a team was rapidly put in place to lead the turnaround and it was handed the powers it needed to do so. Let’s see Toyota do the same. 

Unwind the public strands of criticism that are hurting the company – they will across a wide series of areas. Deal with them publicly at the highest level.

Address the criticism in each stakeholder area – the motor trade, the business press, the consumer press – put in place open and honest solutions that a worried public can buy into. Open up and listen – build social media mechanisms to allow input and lessons from the angry and their fear and upset to flow into the organisation. Let it help drive change further up the product development and customer service chain. Incentivise honesty. Don’t shut down criticism – embrace it. You’ll shock those making the attacks – and encourage them to turn from hostility to working with you to find ways of product and service improvement.

Over-service in fixing the problem might be a good start. This is where the re-sellers and the dealers at the bottom end of the customer facing chain have to play their part. If they don’t – shake out the flaky ones publicly after the problem is sorted out – the customer will respect Toyota if it does.

Set out to turn this corporate reputation nightmare into a major opportunity to win back trust.  Hidden inside every crisis is a huge opportunity and it is up to Toyota to do so. Mere platitudes from a few friendly newspapers like the FT is not a way to win friends and influence people. Trying to protray the idea that The President of Toyota apologised ‘so let’s forgive them’ is a nonsense – I cannot believe the FT publicised such total twaddle. It is time for Toyota to show humility and prove that it has learnt big time from this experience by making each of its customers feel as if they are at the centre of the Toyota world as they repair the damage, worry and concern they have caused them.


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