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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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.'