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Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Coca-Cola and Pepsi stumble on Indian pesticide reports

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW DELHI

"We were a little surprised and disappointed by the bans," said Kenth Kaerhoeg, group communications director for Coca-Cola Asia, who flew in from Hong Kong to work on the situation.

Suhel Seth, a public relations expert in India and an adviser to Coca-Cola India, said Coke and Pepsi should have known better: "Fringe politicians will continue to be publicly hostile to big Western companies, regardless of how eager they are for their investment," he said.

In hindsight, Bjorhus, the Coke communications director, said she could now see how the environmental group had picked Coca-Cola as a way of attracting attention to the broader problem of pesticide contamination in Indian food products.

Sunita Narain, who heads the group, "has serious concerns about pesticides in the food chain," Bjorhus said.

"By focusing her attention on the soft drinks industry, she gets a lot of attention," she said.

Failing to anticipate the political potency of the incident, Coke and Pepsi initially hoped that the crisis would blow over and they adopted a policy of silence.

"Here people interpret silence as guilt," said Seth, the Indian public relations expert.

"You have to roll up your sleeves and get into a street fight. Coke and Pepsi didn't understand that," he said.

The companies also failed to realize how fast news travels in modern India.

"We are living in a new, very aware India," said Amit Agnihotri, a public relations analyst in Delhi.

"We have 36 news channels. People are interested in what is happening around them. Coke and Pepsi haven't understood the power of this new India," he said.

Coca-Cola eventually decided to go on the attack, though indirectly, giving detailed briefings by executives, who questioned the scientific credentials of their products' accusers.

The executives pointed reporters to Internet blogs full of entries that were uniformly pro-Coke and they handed out the phone number for the director of an organization called the Center for Sanity and Balance in Public Life.

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