Though most folks won’t know him by name they will know his contribution to business management and crisis communication.
He was CEO of Johnson & Johnson when the Tylenol crisis happened in 1982.
Every business student and communication practitioner has studied and memorized the Tylenol case because of how successfully they, or he, handled a terrible event that potentially could have destroyed a company and a brand after the horrible deaths of seven people.
In later interviews he had said J&J didn’t have a crisis communication plan. He and the company made decisions as they went along and much can be attributed to the humanity in J&J’s response because of the type of person he was reported to be – very decent.
His instincts were to be honest and forthright – say you don’t know when you don’t and keep everyone current as information became available. Also to accept responsibility.
In Mr. Burke’s obit in NY Times, Jack Welch formerly chairman of GE said “[Mr. Burke’s response] taught corporations a lesson about candor. It was a huge legacy to leave: When you have a problem, deal with it openly, up front.”
It is the same basic instructions we as communication professionals tell our clients to do in day-to-day communication or during a crisis. What’s amazing is that 30 years hence individuals, organizations, and governments still don’t do it.
One last thought, there were other changes that came out of the Tylenol crisis – how OTC products are configured, packaged, and promoted – something to remember when at 2 a.m. you struggle to open a bottle of aspirin. It is for a reason.