CHICAGO: Reacting to a leaked New York Times story, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) has launched a major communications effort to explain why it accepted a $1 million donation from the Coca-Cola Foundation.
The Times article included criticism of the academy's decision, arguing that soft drinks contribute to children's dental woes, and so the association shouldn't accept Coke's money.
"We felt there would be a few less-enlightened members who would have that reaction," said Dr. David Curtis, president of the AAPD. "But our membership is overwhelmingly in support of this effort."
The academy had planned to announce the grant at its annual meeting in May. But when the Times broke the story last week, the AAPD moved up its PR plans. E-mails were sent to all members, and a newsletter discussing corporate sponsors the group works with was also sent.
A five-person team at AAPD headquarters has been answering calls. Alongside Curtis, the academy's president-elect, executive director, communications manager, and president of the academy's foundation (which does the research involved), have all been manning the phones. Coke's PR department is referring calls to the academy.
The AAPD is emphasizing that "This is truly an arms-length relationship," and that Coke will have no say on the type of research, who does it, or its outcome, Curtis said.
Crisis experts said the academy seems to be taking the right steps to keep the issue from ballooning into a full-scale crisis.
"This could be positioned as a responsible company - Coke - wanting to work with an organization that has the wherewithal to solve a problem. It's very possible to sell that message," said Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management.
Mark Rozeen, an SVP with Golin/Harris International, noted that "the overall business environment has been so wrought with issues of trust, that any action is going to be subjected to scrutiny today." But he said the AAPD should use this as "an opportunity to reassert in a positive way its own commitment to the ethics and the cannons of the discipline itself."