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20 years

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

James Burke, Johnson & Johnson



I’m not sure if it’s ironic or coincidental that James Burke, former Chairman of Johnson & Johnson, passed away on the 30th anniversary of the Tylenol poisonings. The obituaries correctly state his role in leading the company through the crisis.

This posting is more of my personal recollections since I was the outside media consultant who helped prepare him for the critical “60 Minutes” interview with Mike Wallace in the fall of 1982.

I have worked with scores of CEOs over 30 years; Jim Burke ranks at the top in terms of being such a decent human being. 

This was serious business, an unprecedented crime with few clues and leads. There was pressure from law enforcement, employees, shareholders, customers. Throughout it all, Jim Burke was usually the calmest guy in the room.

He had a way of gathering all of the information and advice, then gently pushing back so his team could refine answers and come up with the better response.  He empowered his other executives to go out and communicate.  While Burke handled “60 Minutes”, “Mike Douglas” and other top shows, other senior executives went on morning talk shows, and the next tier went on TV and radio in local markets.

Jim Burke was able to walk the line between care and compassion for the victims of the poisonings and the need to help the product and the company recover.   While he was the CEO and had ultimate responsibility for the comeback, he never made it about himself or his decisions.  He was working to represent Johnson & Johnson.

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