INSIDE THE BELTWAY: With its leading brand at stake, Coke should have played a more skilled crisis game

PR professionals, whether in the business of product promotion, brand protection and reputation management, or the Washington-based public affairs lobbying and grassroots measurement side, have been joined, amazingly, during these past weeks.

PR professionals, whether in the business of product promotion, brand protection and reputation management, or the Washington-based public affairs lobbying and grassroots measurement side, have been joined, amazingly, during these past weeks.

This has been due to the world's largest consumer product company?with the world's number one brand - quickly becoming the poster child of ghastly crisis management and bad PR.

The company, of course, is Coca-Cola. The impression it has given since early June can be summed up in a rhetorical question asked by baseball immortal Casey Stengel who managed in 1962 the New York Mets, probably the worst team ever to play major league ball. One day, after watching his pitchers walk batters, his own batters strike out and his infielders and outfielders botch routine plays, Stengel turned to no one in particular in the dugout and said, 'Don't anybody here know how to play this game?'

That question seems to have occurred to business reporters, those on Wall Street and PR professionals all over the world as Coke let days of scary reporting go by.

Douglas Ivester, chairman of Coca-Cola, didn't even go to Belgium until more than a month after the first reports and 10 days after 42 school children were hospitalized. Moreover, before the company apologized to European customers, which took place three days before Ivester showed up, more than 60 more were hospitalized, the Belgium government had swept Coke off the shelves and stopped production at two bottling plants, France had closed one plant, Germany another, and Holland had banned all Coke products shipped through Belgium.

By then, 14 million cases had been recalled in five countries. It appeared that the head of Coke/Europe, like his counterparts for Africa, Asia, and Latin America, operated out of Atlanta as well.

All the rules were ignored?'Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it now,'?as partial, erroneous, and delayed explanations came forth. The New York Times reported that on the day Ivester finally arrived in Brussels, he talked at length to James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson about the 80s Tylenol tampering crisis. Johnson & Johnson, in the most widely praised crisis action ever, took all the product off the shelves, apologized, changed the packaging, and only restored the product when that had been accomplished. Tylenol had its market share back within a few months.

Coke should have paid attention to Burke. He had the answers?Casey Stengel had the question.

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