This may very well be a case-study on how not to handle crisis communication. Though the health ministry has given the cola giants a clean chit, their corporate reputations have taken a huge hit, if one were to analyse media reports in the wake of CSE-led Coke-Pepsi pesticide imbroglio.
Almost three-fourths of all media reports were uncharitable towards PepsiCo and Coca-Cola India. And what's more stark, in the whole cacophony of media noise around the issue, these companies lost their voice. The government and CSE monopolised the debate.
And the companies' meek submissions found less mention in media reports, according to a research study conducted by global media analysis firm Carma International.
And for all the talk of media's growing interaction with its readers or viewers, the consumers' voice was almost inaudible. Under a tenth of all reports bothered to check consumer opinion, amid 'carpet bombing' coverage across print and television.
The study, conducted from August 3-16 analysed 629 reports across print and television. The media busied itself more with the controversy's economic and political implications, and to a lesser extent on the core consumer-interest issue of health.
Just about 22% of news coverage delved on public health issues relating to the pesticides, compared to over 50% coverage on various state bans on soft-drinks. CSE findings per se were extensively covered, with 40% of all media reports referring to it in detail.
From the consumers' viewpoint, what's worse is that very few media reports (just 12%) provided information on safety of colas or general food safety standards in India. The media focused more on the impact on foreign investments into India, following the total ban of production and sales of cola products in Kerala.
“Last time round ('03), we witnessed consumer boycott. But this time, the consumer reaction wasn't that intense. It maybe because the health issues didn't come to the fore (in media),” says Pushpa Girimaji, consumer rights activist.
The study reveals that just about 15% of media reports carried the cola giants or their brand ambassadors' viewpoint. It is hard to guess the reason whether it was because of general mistrust for the cola giants, or were they 'victims' themselves, facing a public trial through media.
“There was a strong counterview from some people who felt regulation rather than ban was the need of the hour,” says Neelima Khanna, chief executive, Carma International. Much to the cola giants' chagrin, the voice of this minority was drowned by the majority, clamouring for stringent government action and even a total ban on cola ads.