Taking It to the Web

For Coca-Cola, things don't go better with the Internet.

Behind the story of the company's recent settlement of a $192.5-million lawsuit brought by black employees is a tale of how a few determined activists used the Internet to create a public relations nightmare for the soft-drink giant.

When Larry Jones, a former Coke manager, founded the Committee for Corporate Justice, he did more than call for a boycott and organize rallies. He also set up a Web site: CorporateJustice.org.

Jones posted, for all the world to see, the civil complaint containing the detailed allegations of discrimination at the firm. The site includes a list of the microscopic number of senior management positions held by blacks as well as something no company would want revealed: information on employees' salaries over a three-year period, grouped by skin color. For details like these, the average citizen used to have to go to the courthouse where the suit was filed and pay to have reams of paper photocopied.

A site called boycottCOKE.com also has plagued the company. It features articles about the suit and other alleged transgressions by Coca-Cola worldwide. Here one finds news about everything from Mexico launching a probe of the company's "alleged monopolistic practices" to a report from Jordan about Coke cans being contaminated by petroleum products. The Web site claims 20,000 visitors daily.

These Internet sites frustrate corporate public relations efforts by keeping bad news readily available--and news of the discrimination lawsuit has dogged Coca-Cola officials the world over. One official was pestered by reporters in China asking questions about the corporation's racial problems.

The stated goal of the anti-Coke Web sites, to promote a boycott, didn't have any real effect on the company's $20 billion in sales last year. But worry over continuing negative publicity and a tarnished image helped bring directors to the negotiating table. The international consulting firm Interbrand estimated that Coke's brand fell in value by 13 percent from 1999 to 2000 owing to concern about the lawsuit, a change of chief executives, and a recall of soft drinks in Europe last year.

Plaintiffs against Coca-Cola emulated the protests of the 1960s with bus rides and boycotts, but their use of the Internet kept pressure on the company. Web activism doesn't fade away with the next news cycle. Bad news just stays there, for anyone, anywhere, day or night, to read.