Consider the case of Coca-Cola, which negotiated with Warner
Bros. to become the sole sponsor of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone. As part of its sponsorship, Coke is donating $18 million
to Reading is Fundamental, an organization that focuses on child and
family literacy issues.
Over the course of a three-year sponsorship, Coke will provide 10,000
sets of books to kids from kindergarten to third grade, reaching up to
five million children.
Needless to say, Coke is now under fire. The Center for Science in the
Public Interest has joined with 40 other organizations to criticize the
agreement and to put pressure on Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to
repudiate the deal.
"Children and adults worldwide are outraged that Harry Potter is being
used to market 'liquid candy' to kids," says Michael Jacobson, executive
director of CSPI. (He doesn't say how many kids are upset. My guess is
about three.) "Over-consumption of Coca-Cola contributes to obesity and
diabetes, reduced nutrient intake, and tooth decay."
Under-consumption of literature leads to other problems - including the
inability to read ingredient labels - but that's not Jacobson's
Consider next the case of Bayer, which in the wake of September 11
ramped up production of its anthrax drug Cipro, and which subsequently
pledged to meet the government's increased demand for the drug and
offered to halve its price.
While many editorial writers cheered, others accused Bayer of "war
profiteering" (nothing like inflammatory rhetoric to illuminate an
issue). Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wanted the government to override
Bayer's patent, and Village Voice columnist Sharon Lerner suggested the
company should give Cipro away.
Interestingly, no one ever suggests that in war-time Boeing should build
military aircrafts for free. And yes, I know the cost of producing the
pills is cheap, but the price of pharmaceuticals isn't based on the cost
of their ingredients any more than the price Lerner is paid for her
columns is based on the cost of the paper and ink it takes to print
What's the lesson in all this for companies and for communicators? There
are a lot of people out there who don't have a life. Until they get one,
they're going to do all they can to make yours as miserable as
Many of them (and this is not a blanket condemnation of consumer
activists) are ultimately more interested in sniping at big business
than they are in public health and welfare.
The other lesson is that companies need to remember that business is not
a popularity contest, nor is PR - the latter is about building
relationships with key stakeholders. The aforementioned programs will do
just that - build long-term reputation capital for the companies despite
the sniping they have attracted in the short-term.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business
for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation
He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of