Punishing the Unhearing
Kevin Salwen on Ethics
Companies can be tone-deaf. Sometimes it's painful to watch, as in Exxon's stunning reaction to the Valdez a few decades back or Wal-Mart's glacial response to the litany of complaints about its hiring and management practices. If one didn't get so angry at management, one might even be able to muster pity for execs who are so insular, so aloof, so cavalier that they stand by self-destructive policies in the face of overwhelming public distaste.
Coca-Cola is a company that now finds itself in a similar box. In the past few days, the University of Michigan became the latest university to ban its soda, juices and water products from campus -- the 10th to join that list, after NYU, Rutgers and others. The issue: The way Coke handles employees in Colombia (where 8 workers died in a union-related dispute) and water in India (where the company has been accused of polluting groundwater and removing water in drought-prone areas).
Michigan asked Coke to bring in an independent third party to study the situations. Coke, which is denying all claims of misdeeds, already did a study in which it paid the consultants to examine the charges connected to the 8 deaths in Colombia. Michigan (and the other schools) say that's not enough.
Sometimes, the court of public opinion is stronger than legal courts. In this case, Coke's weakness is that it's not believable to the average person. It is tone-deaf, and my guess is that the company's image problems will continue to worsen until it shows itself to be completely forthcoming. Having your core market (college students) ticked off at your policies is no way to run a soda company.