Coke caps recall negativity with swift, honest comms

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: The same corporate communications unit that

endangered Coca-Cola's reputation two years ago faced another product

recall last week.

This time, 700,000 bottles of a new citrus-flavored drink, Fanta Pomelo,

had to be returned to company warehouses. Company scientists realized

the color and taste of the drink, which represents about 7% of total

daily sales of Coca-Cola products in Belgium, were slightly affected by

exposure to light.

Steve Leroy, communications director for Coca-Cola in Belgium and

Luxembourg, said he was especially careful to be accessible to national

and international media inquiries - the lack of which was a criticism of

the Coke team in 1999.

"I think the work we have been doing since the incidents of 1999 in

building relationships with journalists has had results," said Leroy,

adding that a Coke spokesperson is now available 24 hours a day through

a special media phone line.

Two years ago, Coke's international reputation took a beating when the

company was forced into recalling millions of cans and bottles across

Europe, the largest product recall in its history. The problem began in

Belgium when schoolchildren said they became sick after drinking


The trouble was eventually traced to the improper cleansing of the

sulfur used to make Coke's carbonation, but the company was accused of

being sluggish in both the recall and surrounding media inquiries.

Today, Leroy said Coke's seven corporate communications workers and five

public affairs officers in Belgium pride themselves on a "red phone

line" to government and media, resulting in the steady contact that was

missing in 1999.

"Last time we were not properly equipped from a PR point of view to deal

with the situation," said Leroy, who pointed to an understaffed

corporate communications team due to restructuring as part of the

problem. He said the company was honest with journalists, but was not

perceived as honest because communications officers were not as

accessible as they should have been.

In this latest recall, Leroy said he tried to counter any lingering

negative corporate perception by quickly and freely admitting company

mistakes. Neither recall has involved a health risk.

"Even though the words 'recall,' 'Belgium,' and 'Coca-Cola' are still

hot news, this latest problem resulted in extremely objective coverage,"

said Leroy.

"Extensive and responsible press coverage has led to almost no extra

consumer inquiries, which shows that it worked."

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