In 1982, people died after taking Tylenol, a widely available pain relief medication. The deaths were due to cyanide being add to the pills. The reaction of Johnson & Johnson, the company who made the medication, is still studied today in leadership and PR schools. J&J went public with the information, recalled all Tylenol products, stopped all product advertising, and more. They didn’t hide. They didn’t try to cover it up. It was a masterclass in incident response.
And yes, J&J’s stock price fell. And Tylenol sales plummeted.
In the short term.
However, J&J still exists today. As does the Tylenol product line. It was a disaster, but not fatal. And the incident led to global changes in how medication is packaged to reduce tampering.
The Tylenol incident was a public health incident, which is different than a data breach. However, data breaches can cause enormous harm as well. Especially when the data is about already vulnerable people. Like those we work with in humanitarian contexts.
And yet, when data breaches happen in humanitarian contexts or organisations, we tend to be extremely tight lipped about them. So tight lipped in fact that it is unclear how often they happen. However, the ‘whisper mill’ seems to indicate they are more common than we’d like.
Being more open and transparent about data breaches comes with both potential benefits and potential harms. But there are circles of disclosure, circles of openness and transparency. The project, the people affected, your team, select people in your organisation, colleagues in peer organisation, donors, and the general public.
In incidents – the Tylenol type or data breaches – shame runs wild in us all. It often expresses itself as angry or rage – at ourselves or others. But it is fully presence. And interestingly happens both at an individual and organisational level. This shame leads us hide away, to be tipped lipped. We say the risk is too great. Unfortunately, being tight lipped tends to ignite and fuel the whisper mill.
However if we can manage our shame, we can learn. And as we expand our circles of openness, transparency, and disclosure we give ourselves the opportunity to improve. Together. We give ourselves the opportunity to lead, to care. Not just about ourselves, but actually those we seek to serve.
The choice is hard, but is up to us.