HEAD TO HEAD: PR has crucial role in baby milk battle - The reputation of Nestle in its ongoing battle with baby milk protestors will be determined by which of the two sides the consumer chooses to believe, says Chris Scott

As the controversy surrounding the boycott of the Perrier Awards at

this year's Edinburgh festival testifies, Nestle's ongoing battle with

pressure groups opposed to its retail of powdered infant formula in

developing countries continues to attract high-profile media

coverage.



The dogged PR campaign by the International Baby Food Action Network has

kept the company's activities in the headlines, while ensuring any

alleged indiscretions are the subject of intense scrutiny.



The issue first came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s, when

difficulties with water purity, the cost of products, and the absence of

certain nutrients available in breast milk led to moves to stop

manufacturers promoting infant formula in the developing world.



Recent attempts to persuade the firm to sign up to a four-point plan on

baby milk sales in exchange for the lifting of the long-running boycott

of the firm have failed to reach agreement, with IBFAN unsurprisingly

laying the blame at Nestle's door.



Meanwhile the allegations continue. An IBFAN report published in May

listed alleged violations of the World Health Organisation's Code of

Conduct, which governs the marketing of infant formula. It accused the

firm of contacting mothers in the Ivory Coast to promote its wares,

while recently the firm has been taken to task by IBFAN for obscuring

'Breast is Best' slogans on packaging in Brazil.



Nestle UK head of corporate affairs Hillary Parsons concedes that such

'errors' can occur, but claims problems in this vein are inevitable

given the size of a firm such as Nestle.



Baby Milk Action spokesman Mike Brady's perception of the firm's

motivation differs: 'When Nestle does make changes, it only stops

specific violations rather than making the required changes across the

board. Nestle is disingenuous when it claims it will respond to reports

of violations.'



It is this claim of underhandedness that the firm seeks to avoid by its

comms strategy of achieving constructive dialogue with its critics.



Yet still fresh allegations of misdeeds emerge. Parsons claims many of

the allegations currently being made are the result of the

misinterpretation of the WHO code and over-zealous PR from the

protestors: 'Some groups have made a conscious effort to apply the code

to any food product aimed at under-fives. Many of the allegations result

from what we believe is a wrong interpretation of WHO policy.'



While IBFAN is able to target the media with reports on the behaviour of

the corporation, Nestle has a more reactive and demure tactic when

communicating, while remaining unwilling to pursue the groups through

the courts on the allegations made. It clearly recognises the PR

disaster that could lie down that route.



Indeed, Nestle does not seem unduly troubled by the effects of the

protests. Parsons claims the firm suffers no economic effects, despite

being boycotted by thousands and banned in countless student union

shops.



She maintains the protests are only an issue in the UK and that there is

no impact elsewhere in the world: 'Globally Nestle remains a well

respected company and one of the most desirable to work for. I have

colleagues who have come to work here from abroad and are amazed at the

sort of hostility we have to face.'



But Parsons concedes the UK situation is less than desirable: 'The UK

protest has dogged us for years now but it is usually confined to

certain pockets of opposition, like students where feelings are

particularly strong.'



The corporate reputation of Nestle seems safe since, unlike students,

the majority of the population appear to be less outraged at the

allegations, uncertain of whether to take on trust the word of the

protestors or the protestations of innocence from Nestle.



Having seen the protestors achieve grass roots support predominantly

through word of mouth, Nestle's ability to shed the stigma associated

with the baby milk controversy will prove a stern test for their low-key

communications strategy in determining which side the consumer will

believe.



NESTLE UK



Hillary Parsons



Position: head of corporate affairs



'The emphasis of our communications strategy in the UK is on dialogue

and face to face contact, handling enquiries, responding to letters and

so on. To this end we have someone here with us who is from the

developing world and who can talk people through a lot of the

on-the-ground issues.



'In the past couple of years we have got more involved in communicating

with students and running campaigns on campus and in student unions.

This year we accepted an invitation to take part in our first face to

face debate with Baby Milk Action, and we have accepted offers to do

more at other universities around the country.



'In the developing countries, it became apparent in the 1960s and 1970s

that they needed special treatment and we stopped advertising and

promotions aimed at consumers.



'In a company of our size there will inevitably be occasional mistakes.

We do our utmost internally to teach our employees our code of conduct

but we're not perfect and mistakes will happen. However, we rectify them

as soon as we are aware of them and ensure we respond to those who raise

the issues with us.'



BABY MILK ACTION



Mike Brady



Title: campaigns and networking co-ordinator



'Baby Milk Action and boycott supporters have a demand that is easily

communicated: we want Nestle to abide by the International Code of

Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World

Health Assembly resolutions in policy and practice. Our PR challenge is

to bring the evidence to the attention of as many people as possible as

Nestle claims its malpractice is a thing of the past.



'Our tactics include newsletters to members and a network of area

contacts conducting leafleting, organising demos, giving talks, running

stalls and so on.



'The campaign has achieved the dream goal of marketers - propagation by

word of mouth. The recent Perrier Award boycott in Edinburgh is an

excellent example. National and international publicity was achieved

because a comedian, Rob Newman, called for a boycott in a newspaper

interview and triggered a chain reaction.



'Nestle is seriously worried by the boycott - you only have to look at

the money it invests in staff and materials in an attempt to divert

criticism. We would prefer it to change its marketing activities.'



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