Protesters sound alarm, but Coke rises above din

Protesters of alleged discrimination at Coca-Cola caravanned to the company's annual shareholders meeting on April 19 to announce plans for a boycott of Coke products.

Protesters of alleged discrimination at Coca-Cola caravanned to the company's annual shareholders meeting on April 19 to announce plans for a boycott of Coke products. But media speculation that Coca-Cola would suffer a serious image blow due to the boycott lessened as the meeting came and went quietly.

CARMA's analysis of media coverage surrounding the boycott found that while most coverage highlighted allegations of discrimination at the company, Coca-Cola was portrayed as owning up to its responsibility and doing all in its power to see that an equitable settlement was reached. 'We're open to meeting any of the bus riders. We intend to be the premier company in the world when it comes to diversity,' said Carl Ware, EVP and global public affairs chief at Coca-Cola (Orlando Sentinel, April 20).

The media seemed to agree that Coke should settle quickly. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 20) noted that supporters of the lawsuit also supported settlement, and cited proponents of Coca-Cola's efforts towards diversity. This sentiment was echoed by Coke's CEO/chairman Doug Daft: 'This is the most diverse company in the world. ... We could always do better. No one is perfect. We will be the company that leads the world into a diverse business structure in the 21st century.'

Media coverage did convey the belief by boycotters that the company is not doing enough to combat discrimination. Reverend Jesse Jackson noted that Coca-Cola 'inherits a corporate culture where there's been a pattern of gender and race discrimination and unfair compensation' (Chicago Tribune, April 20).

However, Rev. Jackson also announced that while a boycott could have serious implications for the company, it is premature and can be avoided.

Jackson and other civil rights leaders expressed an urgency to settle the lawsuit before things got out of hand. 'Settle the suit,' urged Jackson to Daft at the annual meeting (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 20).

Analysts doubted the severity of the boycott's impact. John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, voiced his faith in Coca-Cola to combat the crisis on CNN (April 19): 'I'm confident the company will put this behind them, (and) ... this will fade into the past. And the thing to remember about Coke is it has very powerful brands, a very powerful bottling system, and it will return to the kind of growth and public perception it had a few years ago.'

The New York Times (April 20) reported in a similar vein that the boycott is not expected to have a serious impact in the long run. Bottler Ron Wilson of Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling predicted that 'the lawsuit would be settled before long, eliminating the need for the boycott ...' Shareholders echoed this belief. 'It will probably be short-lived,' speculated one.

While coverage prior to the annual meeting portrayed a company with a serious image problem on its hands, articles surrounding the meeting concluded that Coca-Cola had the brand image and leadership to defuse the situation before it impacted seriously on their corporate reputation. The media also implied that the boycott would not have a serious impact on Coke's bottom line.

Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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