Death by Coca-Cola? The Coca-Cola Company is waging a PR battle in New Zealand after a coroner found that its signature Coke product likely contributed to the heart attack and subsequent death of a young woman, Natasha Harris. The coroner said this week that the amount of Coke drunk by Harris likely created a metabolic imbalance resulting in an irregular heartbeat. He called for Coca-Cola to put warning labels on its products that make clear the dangers of excessive consumption and to consider lowering the caffeine content.
By all accounts, Harris’s Coke addiction was uncommon. She is estimated to have drunk between 6-10 litres (2-2.5 gallons) per day, the equivalent of more than 2 pounds of sugar and nearly 1000 milligrams of caffeine. Routinely vomiting and having no remaining teeth of her own, one or more of her eight children was reportedly born with no tooth enamel. Even the coroner conceded that Coca-Cola could not be held responsible for Harris’ irresponsible use of its beverage.
When Harris died three years ago, Coca-Cola resisted the implication that its soda could be linked to her demise. This time around, Coca-Cola is saying it is “disappointed” in the coroner’s findings because there is no conclusive proof that Coke was a substantial factor in Harris’ death. Media outlets around the world are unmoved and sceptical.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Coca-Cola. When the coroner says your product contributed to someone’s death – and common sense supports that view – saying “Did not!” is guaranteed to create new problems and additional coverage.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Aim at the perception not the reality. While the coroner’s report may well have legal holes to be later fought in a court, the real battle here is the reputational risk of Coke being seen as inherently dangerous. Coke is not a nutritionist’s best friend but then again, neither does it kill people on a regular basis. A more persuasive statement would have been to point to the coroner’s own acknowledgement and stress that anything, including water, can be damaging when it’s taken in such dramatic excess. With a response like that, Cocoa Cola may only have had to deal with one day of troubling press coverage and not the multiple it is now facing.