NEW YORK — Lawrence G. Foster, a former journalist who started the public relations department at Johnson & Johnson and helped lead the company out of a crisis when seven people died after taking Tylenol, its signature pain reliever, died Oct. 17 at his home in Westfield, N.J. He was 88.
In September 1982, police connected a string of mysterious deaths around Chicago to cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol, throwing the public into a panic over the realization that a killer had turned a common household product into a weapon.
Investigators determined early on that the capsules had been tampered with not at the factory but by a person or persons who had purchased packages of Tylenol at various outlets, placed cyanide inside random capsules and returned the packages to the store shelves. Still, the association of the product with the crime threatened the Tylenol brand.
Mr. Foster, a Johnson & Johnson vice president in charge of public relations, became a chief adviser to the chairman, James E. Burke, in formulating the company’s response. The strategy, which was widely viewed as a model of corporate crisis management, was to put consumer safety first and to be entirely honest.
The company suspended all advertising for Tylenol and issued a national recall of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules — more than 30 million bottles — spending about $100 million in the process. Burke appeared on television to explain the steps the company had taken.
The plan succeeded, and although many thought consumers would never trust Tylenol again, its manufacturer, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeil Consumer Products, reintroduced the brand two months later in new, ostensibly tamper-proof packaging. Within a year, Tylenol’s share of the $1.2 billion analgesic market, which had dropped from 37 percent to 7 percent, had climbed back to 30 percent.
David E. Collins, who was chairman of McNeil, lauded Mr. Foster’s approach to the swarming news media, saying in an interview: “From the very beginning, Larry said, ‘This is the principle we’re going to follow. We’re going to tell them what we know, and we’re not going to tell them what we don’t know. We’ll tell them we don’t know, and we’ll get back to them when we do know.’
“Larry was looking at the long term rather than the short term,” Collins said. “He was concerned about the reputation of J&J, the trust we’d established with the public.