One of the trickiest problems in the war against terror involves
the ties that bind the bin Laden family with major US corporations.
What's at stake, and how should companies address the issue? Allen
A new patriotic fervor has swept the shores of the United States. Old
Glory has been reintroduced into the national consciousness, and now
hangs in silent resistance from doorways, car antennas, backpacks, and
office windows across the country. Floundering only a month ago,
President Bush has leapt to a historical 90% approval rating.
And it is against this background of partriotism that a handful of
reputable corporations have found themselves suddenly saddled with one
of the scariest threats to a corporate reputation: an apparent link to
the enemy. A litany of stories published in the last two weeks in
publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe have
found links between the bin Laden name and corporations such as Snapple,
Motorola, Nortel, and GE.
The bin Laden (Baud) corporation, with profits of $5 billion in
2000, is as recognizable in Saudi Arabia as Microsoft is in the US.
Baud's fingers extend through hundreds of industries, including
construction, communications, and mining, and it has business links with
more than 50 US companies.
The bin Laden family severed ties with Osama during the Gulf War, and
has stated its condemnation of the black sheep of the family on several
occasions. But as the nation recovers from the terrorist attacks of
September 11, these American companies better have a communications plan
to explain themselves to the public, shareholders, and employees if they
don't want to suffer their own collateral damage.
"This is a huge problem for these companies," says Lou Colasuonno,
partner at Westhill Media Strategies, a crisis communications firm. "The
bin Laden name is toxic; it's like having your brand associated with
Hitler or Stalin. Any US companies with ties to Baud should treat these
connections as if they were a third rail."
One company that has tackled the issue head-on is Dutch bank ABN Amro,
which provides banking capabilities to the bin Laden family. A
spokesperson for the bank admitted that "simply having the bin Laden
name is a reputation risk." The bank has also said it is currently
reviewing its relationship with the bin Laden family.
But what of Snapple, Motorola, and the others that have been linked with
the bin Laden name? Is the situation toxic for these companies?
"Potentially yes, but it doesn't have to be," says Simon Moore,
assistant professor of English at Bentley College and coauthor of the
book Effective Crisis Management: Worldwide Principle and Practice.
Moore believes that a company doing business with the Baud should
prepare a statement thoroughly detailing its connection to the bin Laden
family, and send it to investors, the public, and various media groups.
He also recommends highlighting that the family is law-abiding, that the
company has investigated the connection fully, and that the company
won't hesitate to take action if anything inappropriate emerges. Moore
also suggests that the company indicate its full support of any future
action that the authorities may take.
The myriad approaches
That kind of honest and straightforward approach is already being
employed by Harvard University, which accepted a $2 million
endowment for the study of Islamic Architecture and Law from a bin Laden
family member. "What I've been trying to do is separate fact from
fiction," says Joe Wrinn, director of public affairs at Harvard
University. "We've been very straightforward about conveying the facts.
I point reporters to our website, where they can find information about
the fellowships. We have been addressing the concerns that people might
have when they first hear about the endowments. We talk to anybody and
everybody who calls, and I've even told people to read the Wall Street
While some agencies advocate this simple, forthright approach, others -
such as Nichols-Dezenhall, a Washington, DC crisis communications firm
that has clients who do business with the Baud group - counsel their
clients to provide documentation of their investigations into the bin
Laden family, as well as draw attention to the rumors and
misinformation. "Whenever you have a scary force and there are no
immediate resolutions, the press searches for ways to turn that
something unfamiliar and scary into something familiar," explains Eric
Dezenhall, president of Nichols-Dezenhall and author of Nail Em!
Confronting High Profile attacks on Celebrities and Businesses. "In
times of great anxiety, the populace ascribes all events to a villain.
Until Osama bin Laden is found and killed, you are going to find these
vague allegations in the press, and companies had better be prepared to
knock them down hard and fast."
Going beyond due diligence and bringing in an outside third party like
the Department of Justice to make sure there's no connection between the
family and its terrorist kin is the best way to refute these allegations
and clear your company name, says Marc Shannon, partner and director of
Ketchum's DC office. "The absolute worst thing that can happen to a
company is if it is not prepared. All of these companies should have had
a communications plan ready just in case of such an emergency. Then
again, in the US we always expect a higher level of flawlessness from
our companies when we're looking backwards."
Answering questions that a company's workers have should be another
priority of the media relations groups. Shannon believes that companies
doing business with the bin Laden family should bring in corporate
security teams to inform the workers that the company is concerned with
their safety "because there are a lot of people angry and acting
irrationally right now." He believes that these companies should then
say, "We think it would be unfair to the bin Laden family to cut off our
work with them. Here's what we've done to make sure the money is not
going to the terrorists, and here's what we are going to do to protect
Investigation was at the core of GE's message. The company provides the
Baud group with equipment for its power companies, and also holds a
minority stake in one of its companies. Greg Sheffer, a spokesperson for
GE, says that the company has consulted with the treasury department,
completed its own investigation, and has been straightforward in
delivering its message that "we take our responsibility not to do
business with terrorists very seriously. We are confident that the bin
Laden family has cut off connections with Osama."
Committing to cutting ties
According to Colasuonno, there are no halfway issues here. If a company
was unaware that it had ties with the bin Laden family, it should be
forthright and admit that. But Colasuonno also warns about hysteria. "I
don't think you can tick off every Arabic vendor out of fear. It's rash
and stereotyping, and we shouldn't run from our connections with the
It's hard to argue with his approach, or with the ridiculousness of
attacking a family for being related to an evil person. But only the
future will tell how a business relationship with the most reviled name
in the US could impact the bottom lines of certain companies.
PRESS COVERAGE OF BIN LADEN FAMILY BUSINESS
- The Wall Street Journal, September 19: "Black Sheep of a blue-chip
MSNBC, September 19: "Black Sheep of a blue-chip family"
Arizona Republic, September 24: "Family business 'Black Sheep'"
An in-depth look at the US companies that the bin Laden family does
business with. Even-handed account of companies dealings with the Saudi
bin Laden group.
- New York Post, September 23: "Bin Laden's big family has big ties to
More negative in tone. Examines the US companies doing business with the
Baud group. The story says that these companies "have expressed support
- The Baltimore Sun, September 17: "Wealth of bin Laden family can be
seen in Boston area"
Los Angeles Times, September 17: "Boston a home for bin Ladens"
Profiles the connection of the Bin Laden family to Harvard University
and the $2 million dollar endowment.