In the late 1990s and again in 2000 Coca-Cola was faced with two major public
relations crises which the Agency crisis team successfully handled.
CASE STUDIES: LIFE MAGAZINE AND LOGO CRISES
Life Magazine published a photo-caption of a Cameroon Muslim shopkeeper performing his
prayers in his shop. An old-fashioned branded Coca-Cola ice chest was set against the wall in
the direction of Makkah so the shopkeeper was photographed prostrating before the ice-
chest. The caption read: ‘Everybody knows that Muslims around the world seek spiritual
refreshment. This Muslim from Cameroon has found the Real Thing.’ While the caption was
obviously written without malice aforethought it ignited a firestorm of protest from Muslim
organizations in the U.S., which called for Muslims to boycott all Coca-Cola products. News of
Coca-Cola’s anti-Islamic ‘advertising’ rapidly filtered into Saudi Arabia, first through a Muslim
publication, Al Muslimoon, and then, like wildfire through university campuses. Student
organizations began to call for a boycott of Coca-Cola in the Kingdom.
The Agency was charged with damage control and jumped into action. We did a rapid
situation analysis of the Saudi media and discovered that Okaz, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading
high circulation daily newspapers was planning a full-page exposé of Coca-Cola’s anti-Islamic
‘advertising’ based on the Al Muslimoon story. Our crisis team, through Coca-Cola’s public
affairs manager in Saudi Arabia, requested that Coca-Cola Atlanta secure a written
exoneration and apology from Life magazine clearly stating that Coca-Cola had nothing to do
with the photograph. This was to be communicated to the protesting Muslim organizations in
the U.S. who would be asked to acknowledge that Coca-Cola was blameless. This was
carried out from Coca-Cola corporate headquarters in Atlanta and Coca-Cola offices in New
York City with astonishing alacrity - the Agency received copies of the requested documents
within two days. These documents were immediately translated into Arabic by the Agency.
Simultaneously, the Agency contacted the Okaz journalist who had written the story and
asked that it be embargoed until the end of the week until Coca-Cola could make its case.
The story was re-scheduled to be published in the Saturday edition of the newspaper. On
Thursday evening, the Agency met with the journalist, with all the documentation from Coca-
Cola, Life Magazine and the U.S. Muslim Students Assocations. Once the facts were laid out
we put it to the journalist that if he published the story he would be publishing an outright lie.
He agreed to withhold the story.
To quell the fallout from the Saudi rumour-mill, the Agency visited the Muslim World League
in the holy city of Makkah and presented the Secretary General with the case in order to
secure an official letter clarifying this issue. The letter was distributed to universities and other
student organizations. No further negative media coverage in Saudi Arabia appeared relating
to the Life Magazine photo-caption and student protests died out within less than one month.
In 2000 Coca-Cola was hit with another crisis, this time involving a computer graphic of an
inverted Coca-Cola logo, which it was claimed spelled
out ‘No Makkah, No Mohammed’. While the allegation
was clearly absurd, the anti-American mood was at a
peak as a result of the renewed Intifada and calls for a
boycott of American goods. Coca-Cola was at the top
of the boycott lists and the allegation spilled out from
Internet chat rooms into the national media.
The Agency was charged with containing the issue,
countering negative coverage and putting a stop to
coverage of the issue. Because of the absurdity of the
charge, we went on the offensive, attacking the
allegations as without foundation and un-Islamic
through a carefully written press release explaining to
readers the historical development of the Coca-Cola
logo, developed in the 1880s in Atlanta when Coca-
Cola was a local drink sold in pharmacies only in
Georgia. At the same time, we contacted leading
newspaper columnists who wrote on Islamic affairs
and communicated the message, encouraging them
to call for a stop to baseless allegations. We found
most of the columnists we communicated with were
outraged at the allegations and several columns in
Saudi daily newspapers condemned the allegations.
Letters were also sent to the Ministry of Commerce,
Ministry of Information and Ministry of Interior
protesting the publication of stories attacking Coca-Cola based on a spurious computer
inversion of a logo created in the 19th century. The Agency and Coca-Cola representatives
met with government officials in Riyadh on several occasions to reinforce their case. The
issue was discussed at length in government circles. After several weeks, the Ministry of
Interior officially condemned the allegations and forbade any further media coverage of the
issue by the Saudi press.
Trans-Arabian Creative Communications Services has implemented numerous crisis
communications programs for a wide-range of clients, including Procter & Gamble, Pepsi
Cola International, Rhodia, the Savola Group, Misr International Bank, Jordan Commercial
Bank, Bank Al Bilad, Bank Al Jazira and Saudi Amiantit Group, among others. Most of the
work implemented has been covered by confidentiality agreements and cannot be published.
We believe that pre-emptive crisis management is preferable to reactive crisis management.
Therefore we focus on creating crisis protocols for our clients, which aim to identify potential
crisis situations and prepare for them in advance. We have created crisis handbooks and
protocols for Rhodia Egypt, Jordan Commercial Bank, Misr International Bank, the Savola
Group, the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism and other organizations.