PR - Crisis and Management

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Coke on college campuses

Coca-Cola has billed itself as the world's beverage, uniting all colors and cultures within its red-and-white swoosh. Behind that image, however, a growing student movement is taking the company to task for its less than harmonious record of human rights around the globe. The anti-Coke movement says that the beverage giant is complicit in murders and attacks on union organizers in Colombia and in environmental damage in India.


In 2005, six colleges and universities in the United States, including Carleton, Oberlin and Bard-have responded either by canceling contracts or banning vending machines. Campaigns are active at about ninety more campuses since then, making this the largest anticorporate campaign since the one against Nike. In 2006, critics of Coca-Cola have much to celebrate. 23 colleges worldwide have now banned Coke products from their campuses. The movement has spread within the United States as well and now includes bans approved in December by two large institutions, New York University and the University of Michigan.

In the context of crisis public relations Coke has done almost everything right according to established protocols. Coke acknowledges that many of the countries in which it does business do not have the labor or environmental standards of the United States, but the company says that it is a good corporate citizen, and is helping union organizers and environmentalists. And in an argument clearly designed to reach the hearts of student activists, the company is also now arguing that the boycott is in some cases taking business away from unionized workers in the United States and helping non-union businesses.

"We are costing Coke tens of millions of dollars, and this is growing," said Ray Rogers, director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, which is coordinating many of the campus efforts (insidehighered.com). Rogers said that major targets in coming months would be the City and State Universities of New York, and the Universities of California, Minnesota and Montana.

In order to combat the negative publicity from the boycotts, Coke has responded with a series of visits by company officials to campuses and a Web site, Coke Facts, with the company's take on its foreign operations. Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coke, called the boycott efforts "misguided and unfortunate." She said she didn't think the movement had momentum, and said that the company was working to prevent that from happening. She said that the protests against the company were "a distraction" from its efforts to help labor and the environment in various countries with Coke plants. She said she hoped that colleges would "be open to hearing the facts" about the company's operations before making decisions (insidehighered.com).
Bjorhus said that the problems facing union leaders in Colombia are real, but that they are not linked to Coke. She said almost one-third of Coke's employees in the country are unionized, compared to an average in that country of about 4 percent.

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