Too early for the Tylenol playbook to work for Boeing’s 737 Max

J&J’s exemplary response to the product tampering was twofold: fixing a problem not of its own making, and restoring consumer trust. Boeing has systemic flaws to address, first and foremost.

While Boeing is still working on fixes for the 737 Max issues that have grounded the aircraft, numerous commentators have suggested that Boeing needs to mimic the reputation recovery playbook Johnson & Johnson used during the Tylenol crisis in 1982.

As someone who worked closely with the J&J team during the Tylenol response and comeback, I say it’s too soon for the Tylenol approach.

Boeing is still in the throes of the crisis. Its situation is much more analogous to what BP went through when it took 85 days to cap the well after the rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

For almost three months, there was little that BP could do until the Deepwater Horizon well had been capped and the oil spillage had been “contained.” Only then could BP begin to pivot toward normal operations and undertake the long and difficult work of regaining public trust.

Boeing is in the same position. Only after the software fix is implemented and the FAA certifies the planes as safe to fly can Boeing and the carriers implement a Tylenol-like strategy. Four decades later, here are three elements of the Tylenol approach that remain relevant.

1. Have a great spokesperson whom the public trusts. Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke was the face of the company. He came across as—and was—caring, concerned and believable. For Boeing or American, United, Southwest and Alaska airlines that fly the 737 Max, it’s probably not the CEO’s proper role. Employees and the public tend to trust the voice from the cockpit, so senior pilots are the right choice to talk about safety of the 737 Max.

2. Go above and beyond what regulators demand. To ensure public safety and trust, J&J decided to do more than the Food and Drug Administration and the FBI asked. It was J&J’s decision to bring out the triple-seal, tamper-resistant cap on Tylenol. J&J also told consumers it would replace—free of charge—any bottles they threw away. In the press conference announcing the change, Burke said it was “a moral imperative, as well as good business, to restore Tylenol to its preeminent position in the marketplace.” Carriers should do more than the minimum to reassure their passengers that it is safe to fly on the 737 Max. It could be discount coupons on each flight, extra frequent flyer points—they need bold strokes.

3. Go wide and deep with a public approach to recovery. In addition to Jim Burke conducting the national press conference and appearing on “60 Minutes,” the company tasked its executives and field force to appear in markets all across the Unites States. J&J employees went on local TV and radio, visited retailers and met with health care professionals to discuss the comeback and answer questions. American, United, and Southwest should use local interviews and events to reach their employees, customers and other stakeholders

In addition, there is one profound difference between Tylenol and Boeing—the matter of culpability and responsibility. In J&J’s case, to this day, no one knows who poisoned the Tylenol tablets. No one blamed J&J. As the lawyers would say, there was no contributory negligence by the company.

While Boeing didn’t want to have the problem, it was something they did or didn’t do that caused the crashes. How Boeing accepts and communicates accountability will determine how quickly it can restore the public trust.

I’m rooting for Boeing and the carriers to successfully relaunch the 737 Max in their fleets. They may eventually come up with a plan that will restore the public trust in the aircraft—but it’s too soon to launch the reputation recovery now.

Andrew Gilman is CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, a crisis communications firm based in Washington, D.C. During the Tylenol crisis, Gilman prepared Johnson & Johnson CEO Jim Burke for “60 Minutes” and other interviews.


2 Responses to “Too early for the Tylenol playbook to work for Boeing’s 737 Max”

    Craig Rothenberg says:

    You’re on-point, as usual, Andy. Perhaps the central point, and key distinction, is that in the case of the Tylenol tamperings, Johnson & Johnson was also a victim — of someone else’s doing. Whatever the outcome is in the case of the 737 Max, almost certainly the problems were (are!) of Boeing’s own doing. By its very nature then, its response must be different, but I agree with each of the elements you suggest above.

    Well said, counselor.

    Nan Banks says:

    It is important to remember that in the beginning, no one knew who was responsible. Regardless, J&J made the firm decision to act “responsibly” and do what was best for customers. In the end, when tampering was found to be the cause, J&J went above and beyond to create tamper proof packaging, further demonstrating its customer first ethos. We saw the same thing when Air France dealt with the Concord explosion in 2000. Was it the aircraft? A faulty tire? Debris on the runway? There was no finger-pointing. Only a deliberate and honest effort by AF to find the root cause and put customer safety first.

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