Crisis Management 101: Acknowledgement, Ownership, and Action

In 1982 Johnson & Johnson faced a series of poisoning deaths in Chicago. The deaths were the result of people taking Tylenol, from off the shelf at the local pharmacy, that had been unknowingly laced with cyanide. Seven people died in the original crime and seven more died in copycat crimes. J&J quickly came under immediate scrutiny from all angles. Their response is considered the blueprint for crisis management.

As we watch public and private leaders navigate trying times, as we personally and professionally deal with our smaller (but no less real) versions of our own difficult situations, we can remember these three steps: acknowledgment, ownership, and action. When leaders do not recognize the problem and their involvement in it, when blame is placed elsewhere, when they take no or slight actions, when they never make a grand gesture, they fail to lead. When they seize the moment in all three steps, we all win.

After the Chicago Tylenol Murders, J&J ceased production, pulled products from shelves, and vowed no product would return to said shelves until they had perfected tamper-proof packaging. The executives appeared on and in media explaining the steps the company was taking. They offered exchanges of capsules for tablets (capsules had been what was tampered with in the murders), no questions asked. It cost the company a fortune, but they demonstrated their service to their customers, not to their own bottom line. Their actions correspondingly saved the company and the brand.

Scott Galloway has shared the following:

Part of my NYU course:

How to Handle a Crisis

1. top guy/gal acknowledges problem / apologizes

2. claim full responsibility

3. overcorrect

People hesitate to overcorrect because at the time of the decision it seems excessive. It doesn’t in retrospect. You MUST overcorrect.

The COVID-19 outbreak is different from the Tylenol murders, but the crisis response is still very much related. It’s hard to acknowledge, take ownership, and take action when people are panicking. Per Galloway’s point, the action, or overcorrection as he puts it, must be a grand gesture. It’s going to feel excessive in the moment, but it has to get people’s attention. Not to be hyperbolic or performative, but to recognize whose interest is being put first.

Governments, companies, small businesses, schools, and families across the world are facing their own crises right now. Wherever we are in our organizations, now‘s the time to plant the flag, prove what we’re made of, and show what we stand for. Acknowledge, own it, and take action. Our people, our clients – our future potential people and clients – they are looking for leadership. Now’s the time. Our actions will tell the story they will retell. As it goes, the interests of our people must come first. To do anything less is to fail.

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