Front line paralysis spells Coke defeat

What ought seriously to worry the public relations people at Coca-Cola is the ill-concealed glee which has greeted the company’s latest embarrassment with its Dasani bottled water.

The first revelation that its product was Sidcup tap water with chemicals added to give it taste was a blow from which lesser giants than Coke would not have recovered. The subsequent news of overlacing with chemicals that setoff a cancer scare and caused the entire product to be withdrawn from British shelves has delivered a further massive kick when still on the floor.

Looking for a positive, as Neil Hedges of Fishburn Hedges remarked, the product recall was quickly and deftly handled with no attempt to stall. Nor, financially, will it make much difference to a business of Coke’s size, though the potential loss of sales may hit the local bottler Coca-Cola Beverages a bit harder.

That however is the end of the good news, and the company is left with a public relations issue which goes way beyond the money. To many media observers, the saga epitomised a lot that is wrong with the way American companies operate – or are perceived to operate – overseas, which in PR terms comes to the same thing.

Hence the delight that it has fallen flat on its face not once but twice. Hence, too, its real problem. Coke has got itself enmeshed in the strong cross-currents of anti-Americanism, anti-globalisation, and the backlash against junk foods. Making things worse is the lack of evidence that head office realises what a mess it is in.

The people in Britain are behaving as if every word has first to be cleared by the Atlanta head office, and robbed of the opportunity to be proactive, the story has run away from them. Coke, one would think, would realise that whatever else is global, public relations has to be local, so that the people in the front line have the flexibility to act fast. That, of course, is not the American way, so this time it will pay the price.

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