Atlanta's best-known corporation seemed to suffer another public relations hit last week with the news that Chicago's DePaul University has become the latest major college to kick Coke off campus.
DePaul -- the nation's largest Catholic university, with an enrollment of more than 23,000 -- joined the University of Michigan and New York University in giving the boot to the world's most popular soft drink. Within days, liberal blogs and media websites attributed the decision to lingering concerns over the company's alleged role in the murders of South American union workers at bottling plants in Colombia.
So far, the student anti-Coke movement doesn't seem to have taken root in the cola's hometown. Joan Collier, Georgia State University's new student government association president, says that apart from a few fliers handed out last semester by a Socialist student group, she hasn't heard a public denouncement of Coca-Cola or calls for the removal of its vending machines.
Across town at Emory University -- sometimes referred to as "Coca-Cola U" because about 16 percent of its total endowment is in the form of Coke stock -- an article published earlier this year in the Emory Wheel noted that while student activists at other colleges are pushing for Coke boycotts, "there are no signs of an outcry at Emory against its most famous corporate benefactor."
Considering the current PR crisis in India, where Coke stands accused of hijacking water resources and selling pesticide-tainted drinks, it might appear that Coca-Cola is emerging as this decade's Nike, a corporate behemoth whose questionable business practices abroad have ignited a firestorm of protest among the socially conscious.
Mark Pendergrast, a native Atlantan who authored For God, Country and Coca-Cola, an unauthorized history of the world's best-selling drink, believes the company could at least partly be the victim of a well-orchestrated smear campaign. "They are the perfect target for people who want to hate multinational corporations because the company's image is everything to them," he says.
For starters, although some DePaul students had been calling for the school not to renew its exclusive beverage contract with Coke, the decision to go with another company (not yet named) was ultimately based on finances rather than social politics, says university spokesperson Denise Mattson.
"The students brought (the Colombia allegations) to our attention -- and it is an issue," she says. "But we picked the beverage package that had the best value for the university."
Mattson says there was so much misinformation circulating about the reasons behind its decision that the school issued a clarifying press release.
And while it was widely reported last December when the University of Michigan decided to suspend renewal of its long-standing contract with Coke, little fanfare accompanied the school's quiet reversal of the policy a few months later. The only large U.S. college with a Coke boycott still in effect is New York University, where the ban was ordered by the student government, not school administrators.
Pendergrast says Coke's first brush with allegations of violence came some 25 years ago in Guatemala; a Texas-based bottling magnate was accused of hiring local thugs to murder union organizers at his plant. When Roberto Goizueta took over as Coke chairman, he moved to buy out the bottling plant and the killings stopped.
The current controversy began a decade ago with the brutal murder of a union organizer at a Coke bottling plant in Colombia, but Pendergrast says he doesn't believe the soft-drink manufacturer was responsible for slayings in a country notorious for violence against union workers. A lawsuit filed against Coke in 2001 was thrown out two years later and a report last year by a social-justice consulting firm said the company was not to blame, although the study was widely discounted because it was commissioned by Coke.
"I don't think they're so stupid and inhumane as to have their employees murdered," Pendergrast says.
The debate likely will not go away until later this year with the anticipated release of an independent investigation by the respected International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency dedicated to establishing humane labor practices.
But it might not go away even then. For the past few years, the anti-Coke banner has been carried domestically by the colorfully named Campaign to Stop Killer Coke (www.killercoke.org). What sounds like an indignant grassroots effort is actually the work of Ray Rogers, a hired-gun activist whose for-profit, New York-based company, Corporate Campaign, Inc., specializes in pro-union campaigns.
Pablo Largacha, a native of Colombia who recently took over as director of public affairs and communications at Coke's corporate headquarters in Atlanta, says he believes Rogers' firm was hired by the Colombian bottling union to spread allegations against the company on college campuses.
"There's little we can say or do to satisfy the 'Killer Coke' campaign," he says. "People in Colombia don't believe these allegations; this is a campaign being waged outside the country."
For all its famous marketing savvy, however, Coke often fumbles when it comes to public relations -- and not just in India. When a CL photographer showed up to snap pictures of the Coke headquarters from across the street, the company called the cops on him.
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