Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Coca Cola: The PR Nightmare That Won't Go Away

Over the past couple of weeks I have been writing an essay for my PR degree. In doing so I carried out extensive research into how beverage giants Coca Cola have dealt with activism over the past 50 years. Ultimately, what I discovered was phenomenally well crafted and well executed communications strategy which has ensured the continued growth and stability of Coca Cola.

In the last decade, Coca Cola has been put under increasing strain from activists (especially from campaign group ‘Killer Coke’). The motivation for this activism has arisen primarily from the issues concerning Coca Cola’s practices in their bottling factories in India, Columbia and Guatemala.


When an organisation is responding to activism, the communication strategies they put in place are of critical importance. These strategies must address and satisfy all stakeholder groups. Coca Cola have adopted a three pronged approach to deal with activism. These three elements are containment, distancing and distraction. In order to formulate and execute such an effective strategy, Coca Cola relies heavily on good PR practice from all areas of the company. A united effort is required from their investor relations, customer relations, community relations, supplier relations and probably most importantly their media relations and public affairs divisions.

Focusing first of all on the activism motivated by the events in Columbia and Guatemala, it is important to note that Coca Cola have categorically denied all allegations and used a series of court rulings and investigations to back this up. The first tactic Coca Cola look to employ is containment. They attempt to deal with issues quickly and keep them as localised as possible. For example, in 1981 after a Guatemalan bottling plant was shut down, Coca Cola spent 4 years working on it to improve conditions and keep workers happy. It can be argued that the beverage company achieved this with great success for many years until the court case with SINALTRAINAL became public in the USA in 2001.

Following this revelation Coca Cola began distancing themselves from the occurrences. They released many statements describing how Coca Cola does not own the majority share of its bottling companies and is therefore not responsible for any misconduct. Moreover, they cleverly point out that the union leader deaths in Columbia are simply due to the county’s civil war, which has been raging on for over four years. With a little research, vast amounts of quotes and statements can be uncovered, all with the purpose of distancing Coca Cola from the issues at hand. Although vague, and slightly contradicting a times, these statements remain strong and concise, often fulfilling their objective.

In India, Coca Cola have done a much better job of containing the problem. Court rulings have helped shoulder the blame of the water shortages. In this case you can see evidence of their third stage of attack; distraction. Coca Cola boast several awards they have won in India, including the ‘Golden Peacock Environment Management Award’ and the fact that they have been deemed a ‘water efficient unit’. Many people believe these facts to have been fabricated. Coca Cola have very recently announced the endorsement of Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. This is no doubt a distraction technique with the aim of restoring the faith of the Indian consumer.

Further distraction techniques are evident on the Coca Cola website. There are huge sections devoted to CSR, focusing on both communities and the environment. These sections go into great depth and detail initiatives run by the company. This is a fantastic strategy to take focus off areas of activism and provide material to prove that Coca Cola can be ethical, and that it does work to help to the world where it can. As it is online, it is available to almost everyone.

How effective do you think Coca Cola’s tactics have been? Had you previously heard about the allegations facing Coca Cola? If not, does that mean that their containment strategy is achieving its objective?


Anonymous said...

coca cola are like well gay m8 wtf innit

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Tom Westgate
I am 21 and currently in my second year of a Public Relations and Communications degree at Southampton Solent University and it is awesome. I love hanging out with my friends and I enjoy playing football and rugby and I go surfing with my friends every year! I know when I'm older I definitely want to work in a big city, preferably somewhere hot and on the coast! But before I think about getting a job I want to go travelling. I just want to make the most of my life and see the world! In short...it's allll goood!
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