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Lead Balloon Ep. 18 - Coca-Cola's Retired Comms VP on the '98 World Cup, Belgium Health Scare & More

Updated: Mar 5


Former Communications Executive Ben Deutsch illustrates why overseeing communications for one of the world's largest corporations is not a job for the faint of heart.


Before he went on to become Coca-Cola's global vice president of corporate communication, Ben Deutsch was plucked from his dream job in Coke's Sports PR section and dropped into a global media relations director role that he could only assume would be a snooze fest.

As it turned out, he'd wind up as the media point person while the iconic brand navigated one of the most tumultuous periods in its 135-year history.


From a near-disaster at the 1998 World Cup to a soda-fueled health scare in Belgium, from a whistleblower suit that attracted the SEC's attention to an off-hand comment that jeopardized Deutsch's standing with the company's leadership, the former Coke executive opens up about his tenure with the global marketing juggernaut and shares insights from which communications professionals in any industry can learn.


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

When PR and marketing pros bring up Coca-Cola, it's very often to rehash the trite, but important, lessons of New Coke, the failed rebranding experiment of 1985 that caused notable blowback for the popular soda label. That story has been studied under a figurative microscope, written about in marketing textbooks, and analyzed by people who are, quite frankly, a lot smarter than I am, so we're not going to do New Coke here. But what a lot of folks don't realize is that while New Coke was a notable blip on the radar of Coca-Cola's success, the company faced much more significant PR and marketing crises as the calendar rolled over from the '90s to the 2000s.


Ben Deutsch:

Coke was probably at its highest in terms of corporate reputation. So it was, it was a complete wake-up call and, I think, caught the company off guard.


Dusty Weis:

It was in the midst of this era that company man Ben Deutsch was voluntold that he would be transitioning from his dream job in Coca-Cola sports PR to its global corporate communications apparatus. Within just a few months of taking the job as media relations director and fresh off averting a near disaster at the 1998 World Cup, Ben was dealing with fallout from a European food safety scare, a series of discrimination and whistleblower lawsuits, and more than 6,000 global layoffs as the company plunged from 32nd in the Fortune 500 to 99th. The stories he has to tell from that era are a fascinating case study in global communication strategy and part of the reason that he eventually rose to serve as Coke's vice president of corporate communication from 2007 until his retirement in 2017.


Dusty Weis:

But up until now, the only venue to hear those stories were the PR and marketing classes that he's teaching undergrads in his retirement. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media, and this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing, and branding nightmares and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. Wild suggestion here, maybe you'll leave me a rating or a review in your favorite podcast app. That actually helps this show find its way to more comms pros like you, which also helps me out considerably. So, appreciate it. Subscribe if you haven't already and follow Podcamp Media on your social feeds.


Dusty Weis:

Our guest today is Ben Deutsch, the now retired VP of Corporate Communications at Coca-Cola. He started climbing the ranks at Coke in 1993 following agency jobs at Wells & Miller and Webber Shandwick, as well as a two-year stop over as a sports reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that he's also the proud product of my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Ben Deutsch, thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Ben Deutsch:

Great to be here, Dusty. Good to be with you.


Dusty Weis:

Ben, one of my not-so-secret guilty pleasures is product placement in classic movies from the '80s and '90s. I'm talking about the Reese's Pieces in ET, the Barbasol can in Jurassic Park, and of course the massive building-sized video ads for Coca-Cola in movies like Blade Runner. I'll say this, growing up as an '80s and '90s kid, there were times when the presence and the prevalence of Coke advertising in the real world took on that almost Blade Runner blanket advertising feel; Coke was everywhere at the peak of its influence in the '90s. What was it like for you to work at such a juggernaut at its peak?


Ben Deutsch:

When I think about it, and I felt this way obviously when I was there, but it was quite an amazing place to be. I got a sense for the brand when we started working for them from an agency perspective. They were my client at what became Webber Shandwick in Minneapolis. So I really got a great sense for the brand, the work. But most importantly, I got a sense for the people, and that was the thing even today that when I think back at Coke, it's obviously one of the world's foremost brands and certainly ranked right up there, but it's the people at the end of the day that made it so amazing. And I felt that way when I was on the agency side, and I certainly felt that way during the 25 years that I was there, and that's what made it so powerful for me.


Dusty Weis:

Your first five years at Coke, you worked pretty heavily on the sports PR side of things, you even got to serve as head of the PR for Coke's activation for 1998 World Cup in Paris, France. Based on your background, I imagine that was a little bit of a dream job for you.


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, it was. I always said that, at least my first eight years at Coke, I had the best job at Coke. When I started there I was working on brand PR for brand Coca-Cola. At that time, again, think about this was in the early to mid-90s, Coke at that time had a ubiquity strategy.


90's Coke Theme Song:

(singing)


Ben Deutsch:

We sponsored everything. That meant every sports event, every sports league, every sports team, every entertainment opportunity, every entertainment venue. And so, if you can imagine, being able to do PR for those kinds of activations, it was, it was a dream, it was just an amazing job... So I was doing the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Bowls, Final Fours, you name it. We had huge budgets and really significant activations, so it was such an amazing time for me.


Dusty Weis:

And I imagine it was just one of those situations where no idea was undoable, nothing was beyond the scope of your duties. Nobody was going to tell you, "No, that's not really in your lane."


Ben Deutsch:

For sure. That was probably the thing I think that stood out the most for me, is that you could do anything at Coke. There was no rings around ideas, anything was fair game. That allowed you to really be creative and allowed you to really do some pretty cool things.


Dusty Weis:

Conversely, I know that with a lot of those sports PR jobs there are moments where you're running purely on adrenaline. I imagine at a company like Coke, that aspect was only intensified.


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, no doubt. We always used to joke that it was hair on fire most of the time there. You really were 24/7/365. But for most people, that is what motivates and drives and really moves you, and when you're in that environment, you don't think of there being any other way.


Dusty Weis:

For Ben Deutsch, that ethos is perhaps best exemplified by a tale that he tells from when he was serving as head of Coke's activation of the 1998 World Cup in France. If you're rusty on this history of this one, it was a huge deal for France to host the World Cup on its home turf, so much so that the nation of France built a brand new stadium for the purpose just north of Paris in the urban suburb of Saint-Denis.


Vintage News Footage:

[foreign language 00:07:12]. [crosstalk 00:07:12]


Dusty Weis:

The Stade de France is a great monument to football's legacy in Western Europe. And that first World Cup in 1998 quickly took on historical significant for the nation as France went on to defeat defending champs Brazil, to claim France's first ever World Cup title, on its home turf, in front of 75,000 adoring fans.


Dusty Weis:

In the midst of that hype was Coca-Cola as the event's lead sponsor. At the head of their PR apparatus was Ben Deutsch, coordinating the US and French PR teams that were on the ground for the event. But buried in all that history is the tale of how close that historic event came to a PR disaster for the Coke brand.


Ben Deutsch:

I was down there probably for six weeks prior to the World Cup starting itself. And so we had all these great programs that we were activating and everything was going well. And then, really on the eve of the semi-final match, we were informed by the organizers that 15,000 tickets had been stolen. Now, as you probably know, these events are huge hospitality opportunities for us and our customers. One of the reasons why we sponsor some of these events is so that we can host our customers, and so you think about the McDonald's of the world and Burger King and Walmart and Target. Those are kinds of folks that we're able to bring down to those events and entertain.


Dusty Weis:

Welcome them out, wine them, dine them, show them a good time, and treat them to a world-class sport spectacle in the process.


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. PepsiCo wasn't a sponsor of the World Cup. So it really gave us a point of differentiation from our business perspective. Anyway, so we've got all these folks coming in from all around the world for the biggest sporting event in the world, and we find out that 15,000 tickets have been stolen, 1,000 of which are ours.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, no.


Ben Deutsch:

So, first of all, we tried to say, "Okay, let's try and keep it under wraps and let's solve the problem before we obviously have to go and communicate to our customers." And of course that didn't happen. Somebody leaked it to the media, and we had a front page story on the Wall Street Journal about all these tickets that had been stolen. So we got into crisis mode where we had to reach out to all of our customers and communicate to them and essentially tell them, "Please continue your plans, we will solve this problem, and we look forward to seeing you in Paris."


Dusty Weis:

That's a big promise to make.


Ben Deutsch:

It is a big promise to make. Again, Coke can do that because I'll tell you what we ended up doing. So everybody that was there, there was probably a team of 35 people from around the country who had parachuted in to Paris for this event from Coke, plus all of our folks from the worldwide locations. We were each tasked to go out and basically scrounge up tickets, go to the streets, go to any kind of opportunity where we can purchase tickets, and get those tickets so that we can host all of those customers who will be coming in to Paris. I think we had maybe 48 hours to do that. And lo and behold, we did it. Now, of course, these tickets were all over the stadium and very few of them were together, but we made the most of it. And so by the time all of our customers came, we were able to host them at the World Cup. But boy oh boy, it was probably the most expensive World Cup that Coca-Cola ever had.


Dusty Weis:

As the head of PR, were you back at headquarters directing people as they were out on the streets trying to purchase these tickets or were you out there pounding the pavement with everybody else?


Ben Deutsch:

No, I was there pounding the pavement just like everybody else. Disneyland Paris is where I was, and I was in my own way walking throughout Disneyland Paris very subtly trying to ask customers and people who were at Disneyland Paris if they had any extra World Cup tickets.


Dusty Weis:

Do you even speak French?


Ben Deutsch:

Oh, absolutely not. And so thankfully there was not a camera that was following me because it would not have looked very good.


Dusty Weis:

Still, as these things go, having to pay gobstoppingly obscene sums of money to scalpers was not a bad result for Coca-Cola if it allowed to save face with their customers and then return to HQ with a bolstered reputation as a competent field manager in the sports PR section. And in spite of these high adrenaline moments, he says he was in his happy place from a career perspective.


Ben Deutsch:

For the first eight years at Coke I had the dream job, and I was doing all what I call the fun stuff, and thought that that's what my career was going to be. I've always had a love for sports, and I was able to marry these things together. I just was as happy as you could be. And then my boss shortly after the World Cup came up to me and said, "Guess what? You're going to move... " And I was working at what we call Coca-Cola North America, which was the business unit at the time, and then there's Coca-Cola Corporate. We're right across the street from each other on our campus, but you could be worlds away. My boss said, "There's a junior media relations role in corporate that has opened up and we're going to move you into that." And I said, "Oh, that's so nice of you to think of me for that and I'm honored and just really appreciate you offering that to me, but I'm really excited about what I'm doing here and looking forward to continuing that." My boss said, "No, you didn't hear me correctly. I said you're moving into a new role. This is not up for a debate."


Dusty Weis:

You might not want to mistake it for an offer.


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. I was just devastated. I did not want to go. I had this perception of what my colleagues over at corporate media relations did for a job, which was essentially sit underneath their desk and not lift a finger. I did not want to do this. I thought, "This is going to be the end of my career at Coke." But I had no choice, and so they moved me over there.


Dusty Weis:

Adding to that, it wasn't exactly a very easy time in Coke's history to make that transition over to corporate media relations. Looking back on my career, I remember that there was a period where I started to feel a little bit snake-bitten, where it seemed like wherever I went, whatever I did, it felt like I was being followed by weird huge and unlikely news stories. And even though I wasn't the cause of the drama, it felt like it was following me. I assume that you can relate because your transition to corporate coincided with one of the most tumultuous media relations periods in Coca-Cola's history. I don't imagine that eased the big transition for you at all?


Ben Deutsch:

No, and it didn't. Keep in mind, that's one of the reasons why I wasn't interested in going over there is just because... We used to joke, only people of a certain age will get this reference, but we used to call people over at Coke media relations the ATAG repair people, because nothing ever went wrong over there. And when you work for a brand as successful as Coke, how hard can it be to do PR? Well, I moved over to that role in the late summer of 1999. And as you eluded, right when I was moving there, we had this crisis in Belgium.


Vintage News Footage:

Quite honestly, we let the people of Belgium down, and we're sorry for that. [crosstalk 00:15:06].


Dusty Weis:

The more that I've learned about this health scare in Belgium, the more fascinating it becomes to me. Essentially from a food safety standpoint, Coke didn't do anything wrong here.


Vintage News Footage:

When there's an off-taste and an off-odor, that will occasionally create some nausea with some people. And apparently it did with some children. [crosstalk 00:15:24].


Dusty Weis:

It started somewhere around June 8th, 1999. There were 33 school kids in Brussels that drank some Coke, and they complained of not feeling well and they said that the drink tasted or smelled off.


Vintage News Footage:

[foreign language 00:15:37]. [crosstalk 00:15:39]


Dusty Weis:

Very vague sort of thing. At that moment in history, Belgium was essentially a food safety powder kick. They had recently been an unrelated food safety scare involving cancer-causing dioxins in meat and poultry. The fallout had resulted in the complete ouster of the entire Belgium government in the spring elections, so people of Belgium were maybe just a little bit on edge here. And when the story of these sick kids got in the news, it spread like wild fire.


Vintage News Footage:

Coca-cola previously have been mired with [crosstalk 00:16:10]


Dusty Weis:

Within days, 240 Belgians and French were reporting symptoms. Coke issued the largest product recall in their brand's history, with nearly 20 million units being recalled in Belgium, France and the Netherlands and Luxembourg. All those countries banned the sale of Coke in the wake of that. There was just one problem.


Vintage News Footage:

[foreign language 00:16:34]


Dusty Weis:

Government officials, Coke scientists, no one could find anything actually wrong with the product. They studied the heck out of it and after a couple of months they were left with one conclusion, that the symptoms were all a result of mass hysteria and nothing more. I cannot fathom what it must have been like to even just be working in proximity of the people that were handling this crisis in real time at Coke. What was the environment like then?


Ben Deutsch:

I had really tried to forget all that, Dusty, so thank you for doing such a great job articulating history. It's a sad even... I think more important, context, keep in mind that at that time Coke was probably at its highest in terms of corporate reputation. So in mid-90s, I think at least for two if not three consecutive years, we were Fortune's Number One Admired Company. Our CEO was on the cover of Fortune recognizing that. At that time it really was the height of Coke's success from a business perspective. And then you had this thing happening in the summer of 1999.


Ben Deutsch:

So it was, it was a complete wake-up call and, I think, caught the company off guard. Like I mentioned, I wasn't in the trenches on this one, but I certainly was observing it and then learning, if you will, from my bosses who were in there at that time. It was a situation where what happened in Europe, and I think there were a number of things that we learned, you touched on the thing that I think is most important and that is that whole idea around we felt we'd diagnosed the problem, but we diagnosed the wrong problem. We were certain, our scientists said there was nothing with the product. Ultimately what happened is we learned that there were some bad carbon dioxide that was on the palettes of our product, which created a smell which prompted some of these kids to really feel ill.


Ben Deutsch:

But we thought that we'd fixed the problem by confirming that there was nothing wrong with the product. We erred by giving an inference that this was largely psychosomatic, that this was, as you mentioned, mass hysteria. Essentially, we insulted our consumers, and we insulted families with kids, and we insulted the local government. We failed to demonstrate the appropriate empathy. Certainly that turned out to be a huge mistake.


Dusty Weis:

Not to dredge up too much more history here, but in my research I learned the recall cost the company somewhere in the order of $103 million. The PR impact, of course, was even greater, the company lost 250 million in Q2 income as a result of people's aversion to the product and cash-operating profit dropped off by 6% for the year. Those are mind-boggling numbers for a company the size of Coke, so I would imagine that in the wake of all this, the company's global PR apparatus probably took a moment to re-examine its processes and procedures as a result. How did that process unfold?


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, most definitely. Again, as I said earlier, it was a wake-up call for the company and specifically for communications. Again, there was nothing that this company could do wrong leading up to that point. And so the crisis communication muscle wasn't worked out. There was not a muscle there. I think we learned the hard way that the importance of those core foundational aspects of crisis communications, having a process, having a clear process, the whole idea of communicating to stakeholders as you're working through the process, engagement with media. During those days, again this was obviously certainly before social media but also internet was really in its early days, and so the idea of stories spreading like that, really it only happened from a traditional media perspective.


Ben Deutsch:

Like I said, we, I think, from a media perspective probably would also admit that we didn't have the established relationships with the key media during that time, because largely we didn't necessarily need to have them, or at least felt that we didn't necessarily needed to have them. One of the things that I learned in this process is, and this is one of my big takeaways, and I share it with a lot of the kids that I talk to when I'm teaching, is build your relationships with media, or with anybody quite frankly, but build your relationships when you don't need them, because it's very difficult to build relationships when you are in a position of weakness and that you need those.


Dusty Weis:

So Ben, bore down in his global corporate role, grateful that his status as new guy excused him from working the frontlines of the Belgian health scare, and taking what lessons he could from the sidelines, but if he'd thought he'd dodged a bullet in that regard...


Ben Deutsch:

Little did I know that our cloud just followed me across the street when I went from North America to corporate. It was the most intense period of time that I've ever really had.


Dusty Weis:

There was an entire firing squad of PR crises just waiting for him at the turn of the new millennium. That's coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. Before he went on to become Coca-Cola's global vice president of corporate communication, Ben Deutsch was plucked from his dream job at Coke and dropped into a global media relations director role that he could only assume would be a snooze fest. As it turned out, he'd wound up as the media point person, as the iconic brand navigated the most tumultuous period of its 135-year history.


Ben Deutsch:

One of the reasons why I didn't want to take this job is because I thought it would be boring and that there is nothing that really goes on in corporate because this company was just flying high. Well, little did I know, and it was maybe that dark cloud just followed me across the street when I went from North America to corporate.


Ben Deutsch:

The crisis was in summer of 1999. And then right at the end of 1999, the company dismissed the CEO, which then created a whole cycle of leadership appointments and announcements. But Coke had never really changed out its CEO before. So here I was right in the middle of that. Also happening at the same time was a racial discrimination lawsuit that was filed against the company, which ultimately really played itself out over a year and a half. But certainly the initial announcement happened right as the time I moved over to corporate. Shortly after naming our new CEO, the new CEO came in and announced a layoff of 6,000 employees. It was the first layoff that the company had ever announced, and it was a global layoff. Shortly after that announcement we had a whistleblower lawsuit that was filed. And then making matter even worse, the company's business started to slide. So you had all of these things really happening within the first six months of me walking over into my job.


Dusty Weis:

I can only imagine that the impact that this was having on the moral at Coke was palpable. But in addition to that, where there any times in the midst of all that when you looked at your decision... well, not your decisions, you looked at your situation of having changed jobs and thought to yourself, "Oh, man, this was a huge mistake."


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, I didn't have time. It was crazy. I mean, it really was. It was the most intense period of time that I've ever really had. You had all these issues all at the same time. At that time, you had all the top business media having dedicated reporters who woke up every morning and had to figure out what they were going to write about as it relates to Coke and Pepsi. So the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, US Today, all the wires, the four main wires, you had the local Atlanta General Constitution and then you had all the big broadcasters, and they all had dedicated people. So it was very difficult to juggle and manage media at the time because it was such a competitive environment. When one of their competitors broke a story about Coke, their editors weren't too happy with them. And so that was the environment in which I grew up doing media relations. But, no, I didn't have a moment to even think about whether or not this was good or bad.


Dusty Weis:

You were just kicking your feet to stay afloat.


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. It was an adrenaline rush. At the time, I remember just saying, "Well, this is hard." But when I look back at it five years later after going through that period, what an amazing learning experience for me. I never would have learned what I learned had those things not happened to the company.


Dusty Weis:

Let's dig in on a few of these stories then, because all of these are such interesting vignettes. You had mentioned a whistleblower lawsuit as another of the major stories playing out at Coca-Cola around the turn of the century. What happened with this fellow, Matthew Whitley?


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, that was an interesting one. Couple of things, so Matt Whitley launched a whistleblower lawsuit. In that, he had been recently dismissed as part of that 6,000 person layoff. He had alleged six or seven allegations that were... None of them were connected. There were racial disparities. They were channel stuffing, which is an allegation of us selling our products to our bottlers from a timing issue. He alleged that we had manipulated the results of the test that we had done for our customer, Burger King.


Dusty Weis:

The Frozen Coke, right?


Ben Deutsch:

The Frozen Coke, exactly. And so there were a number of things. A couple of things that I will never forget, one is I remember hurdling with our lawyers when the lawsuit was first made public, and I remember how it was made public. Matt Whitley and his attorney, we found out by ABC News was going to have the two of them live on the evening news. That's how we found out that we were going to be served with this lawsuit.


Ben Deutsch:

I'll never forget, we drafted up a statement, and I worked with the lawyers on this, and there was a reference in that statement that said Matt Whitley was a disgruntled former employee. We all felt so good about ourselves that that's how we framed Matt up. Fast forward, if I could do things over again, we never would have positioned him like that for two reasons. One is we were this gigantic company, so it's David and Goliath, and we just called David a disgruntled former employee. So, that in of itself, in retrospect, was not a wonderful strategic move.


Dusty Weis:

It was sort of a punch down-


Ben Deutsch:

Correct.


Dusty Weis:

... if you will.


Ben Deutsch:

Correct. As it ultimately turned out, one of the allegations, for sure, that Matt brought forward and that was the manipulation of the Frozen Coke results with our customer Burger King was true. And so ultimately as it turned out, I think we settled the lawsuit months later for $540,000 with Matt. Original lawsuit was for $44,1 million. But all that to say Matt was doing, quite frankly, what he felt was the right thing to do, and that was one of the company's darker moments.


Ben Deutsch:

The other story that I share with many people, mostly with the students when I'm telling them about the importance of communication and the power of what you say, during that episode we got to a point where the company did analysis of all of the allegations and we came out with a report. We shared it with the media. And then I did interviews, because I was the company's spokesperson at the time. So I did back to back to back to back to back to back interviews. One of the things that we discussed as a team prior to me doing the interviews is when it came to how we were going to handle certain questions. One of the questions that we were preparing ourselves for was whether or not the Securities and Exchange Commission had launched a formal investigation of us, which they had done.


Ben Deutsch:

In those days, that was not a public disclosure. The SEC had made us aware that they were formally looking at Matt's allegations. We all agreed that if I was asked by the media whether or not the SEC has contacted us or were they investigating us, that I would indeed confirm that we were. I wouldn't decline to comment, but I would confirm that they were.


Dusty Weis:

At that point, essentially, it's better to own it, admit to it, and continue to advance the story than to attempt to divert or even subvert the truth there.


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

Because it's going to come out eventually.


Ben Deutsch:

Correct. We certainly decided we weren't going to volunteer it but...


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, no. Right.


Ben Deutsch:

But if they asked, we felt that was important not to decline to comment but to confirm that we did. I did a series of interviews with all of these key media, and it was everybody that you know of, the top business media in that world at that time. I'm doing the interviews and they're all going just fine, and I get to the last interview. The last interview is with Bloomberg. At the time they were just a wire service. I did the interviews, 15 minutes long and the reporter said, "Okay, that's great. Thanks, Ben, I appreciate it."


Ben Deutsch:

I'm about to hang up the phone and all of a sudden he goes, "Well, wait a minute, wait a minute. Hold on, one last thing. I know this is a shot in the dark, but have you guys been contacted by the SEC?" I said, "Well, as a matter of a fact we have. I can confirm that we've been informed by the SEC that they are doing a formal investigation." Then all of a sudden, it was just quiet at the end of the line. And I said, "Steve, are you there?" He said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. Could you just repeat that again?" And I said, "Yes." I repeated it and he said, "Okay, good, thanks." Hung up the phone, didn't even almost say goodbye. Next you know, seven minutes later across the wire off of Bloomberg is the headline, "Coca-Cola before investigated by the SEC for Whitley allegations."


Dusty Weis:

You were so close to getting out of the day.


Ben Deutsch:

Right. And all of the sudden two things happen. One is our stock dropped $3 within 15 minutes. So billions of dollars of shareowner value disappeared within 15 minutes. My office was in the 22nd floor at the tower at North Avenue in Atlanta. And then a knock on my door, and I turn around my shoulder and it's our chief financial officer. He said, "Ben, what did you just say?" And I said, "Gary, as we all agreed, we would confirm if I was asked whether or not the SEC had opened up an investigation, and that's what I did." He looked at me, and he nodded his head and he said, "Right. Okay. Good. All right, carry on." And he left. It was the only time the CFO had ever stepped foot on the 22nd floor, ever. I guarantee you that.


Ben Deutsch:

But as I share that story with the students, it wasn't a mistake, but it shows how powerful and how important clarity in words and how it can impact a business, especially a publicly-traded company, and what can happen in a situation, how the impact you can have with what you say and what gets reported. It was a moment that I will never ever, ever forget.


Dusty Weis:

Certainly it was the right thing to do, to confirm it instead of trying to dance around it or anything like that. You certainly caught your reporter and probably his editor who was sitting right in his ear at that time, I would imagine, on the end of the phone, caught them off guard with it. But to see your words, your actions, right or not, have such an impact on the company and billions of dollars of evaporating shareholder value, that's a tremendous amount of pressure on you as one person. Over the course of your career, how did you learn to deal with that kind of pressure?


Ben Deutsch:

Part of it is making mistakes and learning from it. One of the stories that I tell is a similar story where back in the mid-90s we were announcing this program that we had created called Coca-Cola Big TV. Without going into a ton of detail, it was us getting into the TV production business and creating content at that time that would appear in the Superbowl. Most of you wouldn't know this, but at one point Coca-Cola Company has purchased Columbia Pictures, I want to say it was in the late '80s. And then we sold them, we sold Columbia Pictures after a few years to focus more on our core businesses which is beverages. We learned that a company's focus should be on its core. And so that's in part why we sold Columbia Pictures.


Ben Deutsch:

So I'm talking about this Coca-Cola Big TV and I'm doing, again, a series of interviews, and I'm keeping incredibly consistent and disciplined to my message. So I'm doing the right thing, I'm not diverting, I'm staying on message, I'm hitting those talking points. And again, this is after seven interviews, and I have my last interview. It also happened to be with Bloomberg. I got lazy for that last interview and started feeling really comfortable.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, lazy, maybe a little bit punchy-


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

You've been doing this all day.


Ben Deutsch:

Right. Right, and oh, I got it. I can handle this one and kick my feet back up. And this is the last one and then we'll call it a day. Well, I ended up veering off script and I commented. The comment that I made, and I know the exact words I close, but every one these interviews all asked about, given that you had purchased Columbia Pictures years ago, does this mean that Coke's going to get back into the movie business? We had a really straight forward answer for that which was long lines of no, it's not. We're going to stick to our core business.


Ben Deutsch:

But in this particular one I happened to share something to the effect that selling Columbia Pictures was one of the best things that the company had done. Now, that was a true statement. We bought Columbia Pictures for over $600 million, and years later we ended up selling Columbia for $1,5 billion. So it was a very smart and strategic transaction for the company, and was done obviously to get us back focused on beverages. But when I gave that quote and the story came out and I was quoted as saying something along those lines...


Dusty Weis:

Probably front and center, third or fourth graph, I would imagine.


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah, it was upper mid part of the story.


Dusty Weis:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Ben Deutsch:

All of sudden I got a call from two or three levels above me in communications. I'll never forget, she said, "Ben, did you say that?" I said, "Yeah, Linda, I did say that." She said, "Don't ever say that again." I said, "Okay." She said, "You do realize that our chairman, Roberto Goizueta, current chairman and probably one of the most revered business leaders of any generation, that was his baby. He led the acquisition of it, but also the divestiture." And so my comment did not sit well and did not look well. Needless to say, I never said anything like that again. Clearly, it just crushed me and up until that point had this, what I thought was a really good day and I was handling media interviews well. That's how I ended the day.


Ben Deutsch:

And so about 6:30 that night I went in and met with the person who was responsible for the business side of what that program was, and so I went in to report to him about the media coverage. He immediately saw my body language when I walked in. He said, "Ben, what's the matter? I've been seeing all the coverage and it looks terrific." I said, "Well, Stu, let me just tell what happened." And I explained to him what happened. I'm sitting there and I had my head down and I wasn't making eye contact. I was completely just distraught and felt like I had let the entire company down. All of a sudden I look up and Stu, who was an executive at the time, I look at him and he was laughing, he was chuckling, and he had a smile on his face.


Ben Deutsch:

I did a double take and I said, "Stu," I said, "this is isn't funny." I said, "Why are you laughing?" He just shook his head and smiled again and said, "Ben Deutsch, let me just tell you, it's going to take a lot more than one person to bring down the Coca-Cola Company. You made a mistake, don't do it again, but let's move on." Just getting that advice, it completely... This was three years into my job at Coke, and I think that was one of the most important experiences that I had ever had. It was the most important lesson and an experience that thankfully I had had because it helped put in perspective work that we do and it gave me a perspective that I carried forward. To a long answer to your question, Dusty, it helped me deal with pressure in a way because that was a story that I always reflected on. It really allowed me to step back for a second and take a big deep breath and always just remember to do the best you can and what will happen will happen. You'll make mistakes and things will happen, but you'll just need to learn from them and move on.


Dusty Weis:

Well, the stakes may be high and the work important, by the same token, the institutional inertia of an organization like Coca-Cola is so great that it was there before you came along and it'll be there long after too, and to just do your darnedest but then not kill yourself over it afterwards. I think that there's a lot of wisdom in that. Do you stay in touch with Stu?


Ben Deutsch:

I do. It was funny, this brings it back to where we started as well, you asked me what was it like to join a company like Coke at the time. One of the reasons why I was so excited about joining Coke was he was my client when I was at the agency. I had mentioned to you that obviously I got experience working with Coke first by working as... They were our client. I know you've worked agency side, you know what it's like to be in the service orientation, you're doing that now. There are good clients and there are bad clients. I would argue that at least most of the time there are many more tough clients than there are good clients.


Ben Deutsch:

I was working at a big agency with lots of great clients. The thing that struck me about Coke was that that was the first client that I had ever had who made me feel like I was 100% part of their team. That was unique. That I know I never felt that way with any of the other clients that I had during my days working on the agency side. That was reflective of the quality of the people at Coke and Stu, he was one of my first external clients. So it's funny that as it turns out when I first then jumped in and joined the company, he gives one of the most important lessons of my career.


Dusty Weis:

End story hits especially close to home for me. When I first started in PR at Milwaukee City Hall, I had to bust their name to Phil Arnold. Phil shared some pearls of wisdom in episode two of this podcast, but one thing that he liked to remind me when I'd get worked up over a minute, he'd say, "Hey, the work we do is important, but we're not saving lives here, right?" Stu's reminder to Ben Deutsch that no one person can take down Coca-Cola hits that same important note, a reassuring pat on the back to a young perfectionist media relations director that you can't win them all. But even so, Coca-Cola was on a bit of a losing streak in the early 2000s, and that skid was about to get even rougher in a high profile sponsorship showdown between the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club and the National Council of Women's Organizations led by Dr. Martha Burk.


Dr. Martha Burk:

I mentioned it to the board and I said, "By the way, there's just little golf club and they don't allow women. Why don't we write them a letter?" And the chair of the club is Hootie Johnson, He just went ballistic in the press and sent them a three page letter/press release saying he would not be held at the point of a bayonette and all of this sort of thing.


Dusty Weis:

Stuck in the middle as events sponsor was Coca-Cola. They would have to navigate this showdown with a mind toward winding up on the right side of history. For a deeper look at how Ben Deutsch and Coke did that, as well my conversation with Dr. Martha Bur k, you're going to have to tune in next time. That's right, it's a two-parter episode of Lead Balloon and you're not going to want to miss it when part two drops on April 1st. No fooling either.


Dusty Weis:

I owe a BIG debt of thanks to Jonathan Stern, another Badger alum who made the introduction to Ben Deutsch that made this episode possible. Jonathan is the head of JMS Platinum Marketing Communications in Delray Beach Florida… I’ll add that it sure is a nice time of year to visit with a consultant in that part of the world. Check him out at JMSplatinum.com But for now, that is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Please make sure you subscribe in your favorite app and tell all your friends in PR and marketing, if you haven't already.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses, with editing on this episode by Larry Kilgore III. Check out our website podcampmedia.com, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Till the next time, folks, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.


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