Nestle may pay high PR price for principle

Nestle may pay high PR price for principle

Mark Borkowski
Friday December 20, 2002


Type "Nestle boycott" into Google and you'll find 5,170 sites that comprehensively diss the company for its promotion of baby milk sales in third world countries. Check out "Nestle products" and you'll find 110 products to add to your "mustn't-have" list this Christmas.

The boycott's been going on for years, but it's not biting deep enough for Nestle's tastes. They've initiated a major drive to persuade lots more people not to buy the company's products. How else to explain its demand for $6m from the Ethiopian government as compensation for the nationalisation in 1975 of a subsidiary company of a German parent operation that Nestle subsequently purchased in 1986? (Yes, hard to follow, but if you concentrate it makes sense).

A company that made $5.5bn profit last year is trying to force the government of one of the poorest nations on earth to cough up $6m, and is refusing to accept a $1.5m compromise settlement that the cash-strapped regime has offered.

Too right. Don't let some tin-pot bastards rip you off. This is business. Who gives a toss that six million people are in need of emergency food aid, and may be joined by a further nine million in the coming months as Ethiopia fights its worst famine for 20 years? That's got nothing to do with it. It's not Nestle's problem, for God's sake.

Actually, three years ago, Nestle's chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe acknowledged that the company had responsibilities beyond its bottom line. The financial cut-off point for the exercise of responsibility is obviously at some point before $4.5m. Presumably, some finance wonk decided that boycotters wouldn't be able to do $4.5m-worth of damage. This may be a miscalculation.

Quite apart from the basic inhumanity of the company's action, from a PR perspective Nestle's demand is totally, utterly, absolutely, incontrovertibly irrational. Did they take any PR advice? If so, they must have been talking to a Neanderthal. Did they not take any PR advice? If so, the management needs to be sectioned. Surely, surely, senior personnel are aware that for many Nestle's name is synonymous with corporate amorality? And that therefore they should be doing everything in their power to reverse the perception? No? How thick do you have to be to run a multinational? Perhaps this might go down as one of the biggest gaffes in the history of modern PR. Who allowed this blooper?

So why not just drop the debt. Forget it. It's loose change. Say nothing. After all, if the company made any fanfare about its generosity, it would still be slaughtered: "yeah well, you can afford it, and what do you intend doing about all your other questionable practices?".

Maybe some cretinous PR thought that this was the right time for a Jo Moore bury-the-bad-tidings routine. After all, come Christmas, nothing much happens in the world. The national dailies are forced to slim down substantially. What space there is is taken up with summaries of old stories from the past year configured in lists of 10. Strange that. So, if you're stupid enough, you might think that no one would bother with the minutiae of an unpopular multinational putting a famished third world country on the rack for a disputed 28-year-old debt. After all, this is the season of peace and goodwill towards all men.

As a company spokesperson pointed out, pursuing the debt is "a question of principle". This quote comes straight out of the George Bush compendium of inappropriataciousness.

Those who have rather different principles, who may not have been completely swayed by the baby milk debate, might just feel that this is where the boycott should begin. Why? Because it's worth it. (L'Oreal is one of Nestle's brands, in case you didn't know). Freuds, which represents the brand in this territory, must welcome the extra work pre- and post-Christmas. A fantastic package to unwrap.