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Lead Balloon Ep. 19 - Coca-Cola and the Masters Tournament, with Ben Deutsch and Dr. Martha Burk


When women's rights activists take aim at a last-bastion boy's club, Coke has to navigate a Public Relations lose-lose.


Home to the Masters Tournament, the Augusta National Golf Club typically serves as a backdrop for sports drama.

But in 2002, the club itself became the story, as its men-only membership policy came under the microscope in an unexpected and sensational showdown between women's rights activists and the club's defiant adherence to "tradition."


The tale of how the conflict came to a head is an unlikely Public Relations parable in its own right, driven by two iconoclasts of their era: Augusta National chair Hootie Johnson and Dr. Martha Burk, the chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.


And, as a signature sponsor of the Masters Tournament, Coca-Cola had to thread the PR needle, trying to land on the right side of history without alienating the powerful Augusta National Golf Club, the pro golf establishment and all of their supporters.


In this episode, retired Coca-Cola Vice President of Communications Ben Deutsch shares his recollection of the showdown, and Dr. Martha Burk explains how she orchestrated an effective pressure campaign against Masters Tournament sponsors and Augusta National members.


Plus, Ben Deutsch shares a few more tales from his tenure at Coca-Cola, and some of the important lessons he learned while overseeing the communications operation of one of the world's most recognizable brands.


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

The Masters Tournament of golf is an event steeped in solemn pomp, dignified ceremony and rich history. With a coveted green jacket on the line, the event has been a showcase of some of the world's finest golfers since 1934. Names like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and so many more have crossed the threshold from champion to legend on the lush rolling vales of the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.


News Reporter:

In your life, have you seen anything like that?


Dusty Weis:

The club typically only serves as the backdrop for the drama playing out on its 18 holes. For the club to be the story itself, the source of the drama? Well, if you're a signature event sponsor, that kind of situation is less than ideal.


Ben Deutsch:

We were being positioned as an organization supporting what, at this time, was discrimination of women.


Dusty Weis:

Ben Deutsch is the former vice president of communications at the Coca-Cola Company. And in 2002, he was the brand's global media relations manager when Coke's partnership with the Masters was thrust under intense scrutiny over Augusta National Golf Club's discriminatory membership practices.


Dr. Martha Burk:

I said, "By the way, there's this little golf club and they don't allow women. Why don't we write them a letter?"


Dusty Weis:

Dr. Martha Burk was the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. Her plaintive letter of protest would not have made waves in the world of golf, except the chair of the Augusta National Golf Club chose to respond to it publicly, in a scathing open letter that catapulted the issue to the cable news A-block and turned Martha Burk into a household name. And, the event sponsors like Coca-Cola found themselves stuck between a worthy cause and the inertia of tradition, with no easy answers in sight.


Dusty Weis:

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. If you like the show, why don't you leave me a review or give me five stars in your favorite podcast app? That'll help me make it into more sets of earbuds. Of course, make sure that you're subscribed in your favorite app as well, and follow Podcamp Media on your social feed of choice.


Dusty Weis:

With the Masters taking place every year in April, we find ourselves with a timely topic this month. But, this is also a continuation of the conversation we started last month with former Coca-Cola VP of Communications Ben Deutsch. You can listen to the episodes in any order, but to pick up where we left off, Ben had started with Coke in 1993 in a sports PR role, before he was pulled into global medial relations right around the turn of the century. Through pure bad luck on his part, that transition happened right in the midst of a real bumpy patch for the brand. On top of the usual new job learning curve, there was a health scare in Belgium and a whistleblower scandal to navigate and learn from. And, in the summer 2002, the last thing on Coke's radar was the men only membership policy of the Augusta National Golf Club, the permanent host for the Masters Tournament.


Ben Deutsch:

Keep in mind, during that time, the Masters only had three sponsors. It was Citi Group, Coke and IBM. And, the pressure was first brought against the membership, and then smartly Martha Burk then brought in the sponsors and exerted some pressure on us. And there were a number of threats for boycotts of our products, and women's organizations were starting to rally around it. As you can imagine a consumer brand like Coke, how important it is for us to obviously have a spotless reputation as it relates to any kind of issue, but certainly one in which, at the time, women, they were one of the top consumers of our products, in terms of the purchase of the product, the purchasing it for the family, et cetera. It was so important for us, obviously, such an important concern for us, that we were being positioned as an organization supporting what, at this time, was discrimination of women.


Dusty Weis:

What makes this story such a nightmare from a public relations perspective is that Ben Deutsch and the entire Coca-Cola brand, they were just caught in the middle of a fight they didn't pick. In one corner, you had the unstoppable force, Dr. Martha Burk, the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. These days, she's just about 80 years old but far from retired, and she even carved out a little bit of time to chat with me about it. Nearly 20 years later, she still cannot believe that the story played out like it did.


Dr. Martha Burk:

I was on a plane one day, and I saw an article by a female sports writer, Christine Brennan was her name, she's a writer for USA Today, about this golf club that did not allow women. And knowing it was very prominent, she was writing about that and how difficult it was not only with them in terms of women members, but women members of the press and so forth. I thought this is something that we should probably take note of.


Dr. Martha Burk:

And about a month later, in our board meeting, I mentioned it to the board. I said, "By the way, there's this little golf club and they don't allow women. Why don't we write them a letter and encourage them to open their membership to women." It was just a very almost throwaway agenda item, I don't think we even voted on that. I think, as I recall, we were picking up our papers ready to leave when it came up and they just said, "Oh fine, write them a letter," so I did.


Dr. Martha Burk:

And the chair of the club, this guy named Hootie Johnson...


Hootie Johnson:

I'm Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. We sure hope you enjoyed the Masters Tournament.


Dusty Weis:

That is former state representative, banking magnate Hootie Johnson. Don't be fooled by that folksy, pastoral air. Hootie Johnson would be assuming the role of immovable object in this drama. As chair of Augusta National Golf Club, he responded publicly to Dr. Burk's firmly worded letter with a statement of his own.


Dusty Weis:

In the second graf of its July 8th, 2002 story about the exchange, the Associated Press described Johnson's response as "a surprisingly long and angry statement."


Dr. Martha Burk:

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 bayonet and all this sort of thing.


Dusty Weis:

The point of a bayonet?


Dr. Martha Burk:

Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

Now, the terrible irony here is that, according to Dr. Burk, if Augusta National had just responded privately to her letter, or even ignored it entirely, there probably wouldn't have been any coverage of it. Instead, it became a national sensation almost overnight.


Dr. Martha Burk:

The first call I got was from Doug Ferguson, who's an Associated Press golf writer. And he said, "What do you think about Hootie Johnson's letter?" I said, "What letter? I haven't seen it." He read it to me over the phone, the guy had sent it to every golf press in the country if not the world. And it just blew up into a national controversy, which played out over a year.


Dusty Weis:

Now, I want to explore that controversy with you but I think it's worth restating here, because what I'm hearing from you is that, when you were first just strategizing this effort, it wasn't meant to be a big headline grabbing affair, you were just writing a letter.


Dr. Martha Burk:

Exactly. First of all, we thought we might be dealing with reasonable people and that educated us right away. So no, it was a minor thing to us, very minor as I said, because we worked on Capitol Hill. What we were trying to do was what I would consider the much bigger issues, like pay equity, like better social security, childcare, violence against women, all of those things were front and center on our agenda. And something like this was indeed very minor, and we just thought we might could push things along. We had no idea it was going to blow up like it did.


Dusty Weis:

Why, then, do you think did Hootie Johnson, the chair at Augusta National, published that letter and essentially vilify you personally, making what he considered an attack a centerpiece of his defense of the practices at Augusta National?


Dr. Martha Burk:

Well, I think he thought he would just crush the little lady. But what he did not realize is that I was five minutes from every national network, and I at that time was known to the press because I appeared on national television, probably a couple times a month, on different shows about different issues affecting women so they knew where to find me. He was stuck down there in Georgia, and he didn't realize, I guess, what he was taking on.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, it's probably fair to say that Martha Burk and her side weren't aware, at first, just how big a fight they had waded into as well. In 2002, it quickly became clear that, for both sides in the argument, this controversy was about so much more than allowing women to join the Augusta National Golf Club.


Dusty Weis:

I'll point out here that, throughout its 87 year history, the membership practices at Augusta National have been intentionally steeped in mystery. No one really knows how many members there, though it's said to be around 300-ish. Membership is by invite only, and it's limited to the most powerful executives at the largest companies and the most prominent politicians in the US. Accordingly, an invitation to membership is, by its very nature, a potent tool for advancement and influence. And as Dr. Burk noted in an interview with CNN in 2002, if women weren't allowed as members, that made Augusta National symbolic of the very highest, very most pernicious glass ceiling.


Dr. Martha Burk:

It's discrimination. It's not golf, it's not one woman on one golf course, it's, why is it all right, in the 21st Century, to discriminate against women, to defend it, and for the CEOs of America's largest corporations to belong to a club that excludes half their customers.


Dusty Weis:

Conversely, Hootie Johnson, Augusta National, and much of the golf establishment didn't stake their argument in a defense of discrimination against women. Rather, they hunkered down behind what I like to call the "you're not the boss of me" defense. Indeed, the full context of that quote about bayonets lays the groundwork for this.


Dusty Weis:

In his open letter to Martha Burk, Hootie Johnson had written, "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet."


Hootie Johnson:

It's just a natural thing. It's just been going on for centuries and centuries, men like to get together with men every now and then, and women like to get together with women every now and then. And, that's just a simple fact of life in America.


Hootie Johnson:

I do want to make one point, though. It's not my issue alone, and I promise you what I'm saying, is if I drop dead this second, our position will not change.


Ben Deutsch:

The way they handled it in the press was pretty contentious.


Dusty Weis:

With Coca-Cola locked in as an event sponsor of the Masters Tournament at Augusta, Ben Deutsch says he watched the situation with dread as it unraveled nightly on the evening news.


Ben Deutsch:

It was a very aggressive stance by Augusta National.


Dusty Weis:

Hootie Johnson had a reputation as a bit of a scrapper, essentially.


Ben Deutsch:

And, so it was obviously, we found ourselves squarely in the middle of this.


Ben Deutsch:

Obviously, it put a lot of pressure on us. Originally, I went back and looked at some of the statements that we gave and I think our first statement ... Again, keep in mind this is in the early 2000s, I think it was 2002 you said. Our first statement was, "It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the membership of Augusta National, a private club."


Ben Deutsch:

Well, think about how that would play out today.


Dusty Weis:

How do you feel looking back on that right now?


Ben Deutsch:

Oh my God, I can't even ... In fact, I forgot that that's how ... It's been so long, I just assumed that we had something that was a little more critical of the situation and when I read that I thought, "Wow, that really surprised me is that what we ended up saying." Of course, it's attributed to me. Again, a lot of these things, as I've told you, I've tried to block them out of my memory. I've been pretty good at that.


Ben Deutsch:

That was how we first handled it. And then, we knew that this was not a sustainable situation for us. I remember going to our business, our sports marketing folks and just saying, "Guys, Augusta National needs to do something about this."


Dusty Weis:

Ben Deutsch knew that Coke needed to be on the right side of this issue, but getting there was going to be an act of delicate needle threading because, from a PR perspective, they were in a bad spot. To be seen as supporting discrimination against women was bad for the company. But also, to alienate Augusta National, the pro golf establishment and all of their supporters, was also bad for the company. And, especially 20 years ago, it's important to remember that companies were not expected to take a side in issues that could be written off as "political." I hope you see my air quotes there.


Dusty Weis:

Those standards have changed, somewhat, today and the world is better for it. But in 2002, Dr. Martha Burk knew that having a just cause wasn't enough to win. She knew she needed to raise the stakes for companies like Coca-Cola, until withdrawing their support from the Masters was clearly the best business decision they had available.


Dr. Martha Burk:

Public pressure, even after a few days, it was starting to build and the companies involved, and there were many ... It was a membership of 300 people, mainly CEOs of large companies so they were struggling with what to do. They didn't want to drop their membership, they didn't want to make Hootie mad. But, they were getting pretty bad press at that point and, as I said, this was a news story, it was kind of juicy, so I was all over it.


Dr. Martha Burk:

A lot of the members weren't known for a long time, several months into this controversy. Coca-Cola, obviously being a sponsor, they were known. But then, I got an anonymous fax that just said members at the top and it had all their names. I didn't know most of these names because I didn't swim in those circles, I didn't know who were the corporate leaders of the world really. So I called the golf money writer for USA Today, a guy named Mike McCarthy, and I said, "I got a list. Would you like to have it?" Well, yeah. So USA Today, of course, had the resources to research it. It came out with a teaser on A1, front page of the Sports section, "Who are these guys? Well, here they are." They were all outed.


Dusty Weis:

Who do you think sent you that list? Did you ever find out?


Dr. Martha Burk:

I found out years later, and I don't remember the individual's name, he was not a well known person. But, he sent the list and it was his ex-wife's father was a member. I figured that, in the divorce, he somehow spirited away the list, I don't know, maybe it was a bitter divorce.


Dusty Weis:

Did it feel to you, in the moment, like you were on the cusp of history?


Dr. Martha Burk:

Hell yes. That's a short answer. Yeah. And believe me, I got lot of death threats. When I went down there to protest, I was in a bulletproof vest, and I had hired bodyguards. That's how passionate some of the anti-women people were. So yeah, I think it was groundbreaking in terms of not only taking on the corporate sponsors, but 300 corporations that the CEOs were members.


Dusty Weis:

So as Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations gained ground in the court of public opinion, Ben Deutsch and the team at Coca-Cola leveraged their influence behind-the-scenes, trying to eke out a public relations win for the company that still put them on the right side of history.


Ben Deutsch:

The first move is have Augusta National basically fix the problem, so that what our first discussions with Augusta was, "Guys, we really need you to help resolve this. We need to you to take a position, to take an action, to engage in discussion," blah, blah, whatever it may be.


Dusty Weis:

This is interesting to me, because this is a process that plays out very often behind-the-scenes, away from the public limelight. But here, we have a company like Coca-Cola looking at a situation and saying, "Oh, this is a thing that we don't support personally, that we don't support as an organization." But rather than come right out and condemn it vocally, you were using your influence to try to effect change behind-the-scenes. That's not something that the public is always aware of when it's happening, but you saw that there was an issue and you wanted to be on the right side of it.


Ben Deutsch:

Right. Like I said, that seemed to be the first really move for us, and if the situation doesn't get remedied that way then we would be in a position where we would need to make a decision, and make a choice. We went to Augusta and said, "Guys, we need you to manage this because we are in a position where we're getting criticized and there are a number of threats of boycott."


Ben Deutsch:

I'll never forget the response back to us was, "Don't worry, we'll handle it." But yet, this still was going on for, I think it was a two or three month period. It was getting to a point where we were getting very concerned. I know we went out and had another discussion with Augusta, and the sponsors reached out to them, and Augusta told the sponsors that, "Don't worry, we've got it covered."


Ben Deutsch:

The next morning, we were notified maybe an hour before the press release went out by Augusta National, that they were putting out an announcement. That announcement essentially was to go sponsor free, that the 2003 Masters was going to be sponsor free. I think Hootie Johnson's quote in there was something to the effect that, "We felt it was unfair to put the Masters media sponsors in a position of dealing with this pressure. It's not their fight, it's ours." That's how it got resolved. Or, that's how it got resolved from Coke's perspective, and the other two sponsors.


Dusty Weis:

I imagine that you felt quite a bit of relief when that happened because what other moves did you have at your disposal?


Ben Deutsch:

I would describe it as disbelief, because nowhere in any scenario would any sponsor every have expected that to be the outcome. But, our only lever was to decide, in some form or fashion, to suspend our sponsorship of the Masters. That would have been the only lever we had left. It was very clear that that was it. We certainly didn't want to do that, but I'm quite certain had we been put in a position where we felt like that was the only way for us to resolve this, we would have done that.


Ben Deutsch:

I think about how a scenario like that one would play out today, and I think there would be an incredibly quick decision made by the Coca-Cola Company, or any brand today, how it would have been handled and that would have been to walk away from the sponsorship.


Dusty Weis:

Possibly in a matter of hours.


Ben Deutsch:

Correct, correct. Again, in that day, that was 2002, there was no social media at the time. Clearly, it was a different day as well. But, clearly when I think about how we'd handle something like that today, the right way to handle it would be to communicate to the organization, clearly understand whether or not they were going to do something to resolve it. If it was clear that that was going to take a long period of time, or that there wasn't a lot of interest, then it would be incumbent upon any sponsor to take the action of removing itself from that situation.


Dusty Weis:

Dr. Martha Burk was also caught off guard by the announcement that the Masters would not be accepting sponsorships for the 2003 tournament, a decision she describes from her perspective as "letting the sponsors off the hook."


Dr. Martha Burk:

They could just go quietly into that good night, so to speak, and blame it on Hootie. "That's fine, we just won't be a sponsor this year," and hope it all would blow over, which it didn't until after the tournament and then it slowly dropped out of the news.


Dusty Weis:

The controversy didn't end there for Dr. Martha Burk. She organized a high profile protest of the now sponsor-less 2003 Masters Tournament. If you remember the news coverage of the event, it kind of took on a life of its own. There was an Elvis impersonator, a giant inflatable pig, even a Ku Klux Klan presence. But without any real resolution, the story eventually lost steam as the US went off to war in Iraq and the news coverage moved on to other things.


Dusty Weis:

Dr. Martha Burk returned to her DC advocacy on behalf of larger issues in women's rights and Augusta National carried on with its own business as usual, until this day in 2012.


News Reporter:

Today, the biggest glass ceiling in sports was smashed. For their part, both former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina business executive Darla Moore were quite gracious today, as they broke into the boy's club, accepting their membership at Augusta National.


Dusty Weis:

ABC News with the coverage there. On his own terms, Hootie Johnson had stepped down from his membership chair at Augusta in 2006. Then in 2011, IBM had announced the appointment of its first female CEO, Ginni Rometty. And with previous IBM executives having received membership invites to Augusta, and IBM's continued sponsorship of the Masters, speculation was rampant that Augusta would finally need to revisit the issue.


Dusty Weis:

And I've got to ask, when that day came, A, I imagine that your phone rang off the hook, but was that a gratifying moment for you?


Dr. Martha Burk:

It was let's say semi-gratifying. They waited long enough that they thought I would be out of the picture. But of course, I got a lot of calls and I said then and I will say now, because they let in two women, one a woman of color to their credit, yes. And, the one was Darla Moore, who's a good friend of Hootie's.


Dusty Weis:

Hootie Johnson passed away in 2017. The first line in his obituary made mention of the Augusta National membership controversy. At the age of 79, Dr. Martha Burk say it's as much a part of her legacy but she notes that there's still work to be done on the subject of equal treatment for women.


Dr. Martha Burk:

I've always said this thing's going to be on my gravestone, it doesn't go away, but that's okay because it was an important thing. It was symbolic of how women are still and were then, discriminated both with work and at home, and there are a lot of things that we need that we still don't have.


Dr. Martha Burk:

The way it's changed is they're trying to put lipstick on a pig. Most of them don't pay women equally to men for doing the same jobs. How do I know that? Because even public corporations do not release that kind of information, it would embarrass them. If you look at the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500, it's under 10% I'm pretty sure. The last time I looked, it was 7%. The pay gap nationally, big corporations included, stands at about 20%. So some progress has been made, in the sense of the Me Too movement and so forth, they now know what is a no-no, but they haven't done a heck of a lot about it. There are very few truly equal-treating corporations.


Dusty Weis:

I'll tell you, I really enjoyed learning about this story because I was too young when it happened to pay much attention to it. There are a lot of fascinating PR lessons that you can extract, but after going back and ingesting a lot of the news coverage from the day, I'm struck by one thing in particular.


Dusty Weis:

There is very little room for nuance in moments of controversy and crisis. I don't know if that's good or bad, I think it just is. Hootie Johnson and his supporters, they portrayed Dr. Martha Burk as a man-hater, as an opportunist, butting in where it wasn't her place. And, well first of all, oof, bad take. Second of all, they're also just wrong. She had every right to raise a concern about Augusta's membership practices because they were, in essence, a glass ceiling separating women from power. Hootie Johnson and his supporters didn't want to have that conversation though, so they resorted to the "you're not the boss of me" defense. Which, in my experience, is a surefire indicator that someone's in the wrong, and they were.


Dusty Weis:

But, to define Hootie Johnson's legacy as one of ignorance and oppression, well that's not entirely right either. Anyone who plays the "redneck" card on Hootie Johnson ignores the fact that he was an active campaigner for civil rights in his home state of South Carolina. Earlier in life, he fought for school desegregation, went out of his way to promote hiring diversity at his family's firms, and was the first white Southerner to serve on the board of directors of the Urban League. Was he wrong about women members at Augusta? Yeah. Does he deserve for that to be his legacy? Well, that I don't know. Does he have anyone else to blame but himself for that? Probably not.


Dusty Weis:

And then, there's the lack of nuance inherent in the age old conflict between activist culture and corporate culture. And here, I think, is the lesson that gets missed most often. I think it's very easy, from an activist perspective, to see organizations like Coca-Cola as obstructing progress in a story like this one from 2002, and Dr. Burk made clear that she didn't think they did enough to publicly condemn Augusta, and didn't respond as fast as she'd have liked. I also know, from my own experience with public relations and media, that it's easy to view activists and protests as a hassle. And, to Ben Deutsch's credit, I don't think that he takes that view but I have certainly been in a position where I thought, on the job, "Well, their cause is just but these activists sure are a pain in the butt." Very often, they mean a lot more work and higher pressure on the job for PR practitioners, after all.


Dusty Weis:

The fact of the matter, in this story, is both Ben Deutsch and Dr. Martha Burk were working to effect positive change in their own ways. Without the activism and pressure created by Dr. Burk's campaign, Ben Deutsch and Coke wouldn't have had the business case to express concerns as an event sponsor. But, as Martha Burk saw it, without the discomfort of event sponsors and especially members of Augusta National, it is unlikely that Augusta would ever have felt the need to revisit their policy. So it might not always feel like it, but from the perspective of making the world a better place and affecting positive change, activists and public relations practitioners need each other. They're symbiotic. It might be hard to see in the moment, but that's the nuance of the situation.


Dusty Weis:

Anyway, the Masters Tournament sponsorship fiasco was just one of a half dozen PR battles in which Ben Deutsch fought in the early 2000s. So coming up after the break ...


Ben Deutsch:

I was called a lot of things on those calls, none of which I can repeat on this podcast. Somebody clearly leaked this to the Wall Street Journal.


Dusty Weis:

More tales from the media relations desk of one of the world's most prominent brands. Plus, how Ben eventually rose to become Coca-Cola's vice president of communications. That's all coming up in a minute, here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. I was the early 2000s, and Coca-Cola needed a win. If you caught our last episode with Ben Deutsch, you already know that he was feeling the pressure as Coke's then-media relations manager. Following a health scare in Belgium, a whistleblower scandal and an SEC investigation, and then the whole thing with the Masters Tournament sponsorship, the communications team that Ben would eventually come to lead was ready to go all-in to turn things around.


Ben Deutsch:

Coke had established itself as one of the great, and most creative and memorable advertisers in the '70s and '80s. But at the time, we were riding a little bit of a cold streak. I had mentioned to you where the business was, and all the tumult we had, the lackluster results and so this new campaign that we were launching, really, was critical. There was a lot of pressure to have a memorable campaign.


Ben Deutsch:

We had developed this really extensive, comprehensive, fully integrated campaign that involved some big names at the time. In that day, it was I want to say Penelope Cruz, Lance Armstrong, Common, Maya.


Ben Deutsch:

It was a pretty big deal. And, I and my team were responsible for rolling it out from a communications standpoint. We kept it under wraps from a media perspective, so reporters were trying to always break the news around the new campaign that we were either working on, what agency we hired to help develop it, whatever the news item is. But, covering campaigns from a business perspective, in those days, was one of the main focuses of a beat reporter. There were 10 to 12 media outlets who woke up every single day, competing against one another one what they could write about on Coke, so it was incredibly competitive during that time.


Ben Deutsch:

So we realized that the only way that we could keep peace with all of our key media was to give news on an equal basis to the key media. So what we agreed to do, for this particular announcement, is we invited all of the key media to come into Atlanta for a day, and we set up a room where we would have all of our key marketing execs roll the campaign out to these reporters so everybody would get it at the same time.


Dusty Weis:

You're not playing favorites, everybody's on the same level.


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. And again, getting to that point was incredibly hard and always was hard, just because there's always a tendency for some leaking to go on. It was more common that not that somebody would break the news on whatever it was that we were doing. But in this case, we had done a really good job of keeping it under wraps.


Ben Deutsch:

So let's say the press conference is on a Tuesday morning. We've got all this New York media coming into Atlanta, we've got people coming in from the West coast, people coming in from Chicago. And, we get to about five or six o'clock Monday evening, so the evening before the press event which was going to be at nine AM on Tuesday. My team, we're going through all of our final details and making sure that we're ready for how we're going to do our engagement, and work with our executives, and set the interviews up. And all of a sudden, I get a call at six PM from the Wall Street Journal, and I know this isn't a good call. I know this is not a good call. The reporter says to me, "Ben, we know you guys are coming out with your new ad campaign tomorrow. Let me walk you through what we know."


Ben Deutsch:

She continued to walk through detail, after detail, after detail, after detail of this entire campaign. It wasn't just, "We figured out the campaign slogan," it was, "We know every single detail on every single spot, and how you're going to roll this thing out." I'm sitting there listening to this and my stomach has dropped, and I'm just beside myself. And finally the reporter gets done and said, "Do you have a comment?" I was so flabbergasted, I didn't know what to say. And she goes, "Don't worry, we don't need a comment from you. We feel really good about our source."


Dusty Weis:

Oh, geez.


Ben Deutsch:

So I said, "Alright, well thanks Betsy."


Dusty Weis:

My comment is, "Please don't run that story."


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. I said, "Is there anything that I can do to get you to hold this until tomorrow?" She laughed and she said, "No." And she said, "I hope you have a good day tomorrow."


Ben Deutsch:

Maybe 20 minutes later, the Wall Street Journal ran it over their, basically, it was the Dow Jones wire service, it runs over the wire and then it would show up in the next morning's paper. But, it ran on the wire. All of a sudden, of course, my phone rang off the hook, every single reporter who I had invited in, who had agreed to come and knew that we were doing this to share it with everyone at the same time. To say they were unhappy is the understatement of a lifetime. I was called a lot of things on those calls, none of which I can repeat on this podcast.


Ben Deutsch:

There was nothing I could say other than what I explained to them. I said, "Guys, this was not done by my team, by me. Somebody clearly leaked this to the Wall Street Journal." Well again, as I said earlier, the facts really don't matter here. Every one of these other reporters were now getting beat up by their editors saying, "Wait a minute. I'm sending you to Atlanta tomorrow, and the Wall Street Journal has the entire campaign, and they've gone out. Why should you even go to Atlanta tomorrow?" That was the environment that we were working in.


Ben Deutsch:

I didn't sleep that night. The next morning, I wasn't sure if anybody was going to show up at our press conference. And I get to the room, I'm assuming I'd be greeting reporters. Sure enough, they all showed up, with the exception of maybe one, maybe one didn't come. But, they all came in and boy did I get the ice treatment. They were professional, and they ended up, for the most part, really being respectful of our executives when they walked through the whole program, and the thinking behind the program. And then, they all wrote really fair and accurate recaps of the campaign. But, obviously that was a huge, huge stain on us and one that was really hard to work around.


Ben Deutsch:

And ultimately, when it was all said and done, as I found out that one of our executives gave the green light to one of the agencies, who was working on the campaign, to share that with the Wall Street Journal because that executive wanted the Wall Street Journal to have the exclusive, against the PR team's recommendation.


Dusty Weis:

Carefully constructed and thought out strategy.


Ben Deutsch:

Correct.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah.


Ben Deutsch:

It was one of the worst moments of my career because I had all of these really important journalists coming and they couldn't help but think, "Wow, well somebody from communications must have done this."


Dusty Weis:

Well, because ultimately, one of the most important things that you have to cultivate as a PR practitioner is trust. The trust that you put in reporters that you do sometimes give exclusives to, that they're going to do their jobs thoughtfully and professionally, but also the trust that they put in you that the information that you're giving them is truthful. But also, that you're treating with them fairly. And when your word is on the line, when your name is at the top of that press release and somebody further up the food chain goes by and burns you, it's not that nameless executive that the reporters get mad at. It's you, the person that they have come to trust, it's your trust whose broken and that's a bad feeling.


Ben Deutsch:

Oh, without a doubt. The only thing that saved me at that time was, we've talked about, this was 2003 so this was three years of really intense engagement with media, with Coke being on the defensive. We had all these situations, these negative situations happening and the business wasn't doing well.


Ben Deutsch:

I'd built relationships with reporters during, really, one of the worst business periods of Coke's history. But, what I was able to do is earn their trust by being a straight shooter, and being incredibly helpful even though, at the time, there was very little good news that Coke could talk about. So I think back at, if this would have been a situation where I hadn't had those relationships built during those times, that moment I wouldn't have gotten the benefit of the doubt. They were upset with me because they needed to vent to somebody, and I accepted that. But ultimately, they knew that they could trust me, and they knew that I wouldn't have agreed to that, and they know that I wouldn't have allowed that given everything that was in my power.


Dusty Weis:

You know Ben, the kinds of PR war stories that we've discussed here, they're the kind of experiences in this field that either make you or break you, as a professional. And certainly, it's safe to say that you came out stronger and better for each one of these moments from your career. But, how did these experiences prepare you for your ultimate role as Coke's vice president of corporate communications?


Ben Deutsch:

Well, I learned media relations in a very unique way, and I would have never had the opportunity to learn it in a way, had I not been put in a situation of which I did not want to be in, and found myself in a situation where, for four to five years, we were on our heels. And, I think that prepared me in a way that seven to 10 years of maybe smooth sailing, or even a couple of bumps along the way, would have never prepared me. I learned in the heat of the moment, and in an intense way, and I think it put me in a position, we talked a little bit about this idea of dealing with pressure, it forced me to work in a really intense situation.


Ben Deutsch:

I think I'm grateful for that, and I think it just allowed me to bring a perspective to my job, and especially the importance of media relations, which is obviously one of the most important disciplines within the communications function, I think that really prepared me to take on the responsibilities that I did, in a way that I would not have been able to probably do had that experience not happened.


Dusty Weis:

You allude to the fact that you were dragged into the realm of corporate communications, somewhat against your will. You clearly stuck with it for a while. Did it grow on you, did you come to love it?


Ben Deutsch:

No. The funny thing is, and I tell this story all the time, I loved it and in looking back, I don't know how I would have done anything different. I learned that, quite frankly, that learning how to do communications about the business of the organization is the most fulfilling, the most impactful communications that you can do. I had this belief that I was moving this needle when I was promoting Coke's efforts surrounding the sponsorship of the Super Bowl. Well yes, those things are important but there's nothing more important than tempting to manage a very critical issue, or the communications of your business, or managing an earnings' announcement. The things that are really core to the business of the organization, and the things that, quite frankly, are important to the majority of the company's external stakeholders.


Dusty Weis:

Your elevating to the role of vice president, was that presented to you in a similar fashion, where you were told, "Here's your new job, time to take it?" Or, was that something that you actually pursued and caught?


Ben Deutsch:

No, I never thought about what my next job would be. I'm not saying that that's the way to go. In fact, I think it's good to have a little bit of a sight line into the things that you want to do in the future. But, I never did. I came in, and my strategy was do the best job you can and hopefully good things will happen, it was that basic and that naive, in many respects. But, it served me well. It worked at a time at Coke and for me, it worked well so I never really thought about that next job.


Ben Deutsch:

When I joined the company, I never thought that I would ascend to become the vice president of corporate communications. And as I told you, I probably would have been happy doing my sports PR job the rest of my career. But again, thanks to some really smart mentors who knew that for me, from a career perspective, the best thing for me to do would be to move into corporate media relations and learn that side of the business. Thankfully that happened, because it wouldn't have happened on my own.


Ben Deutsch:

When I share my recommendations and advice to younger folks still, it's kill it at what you're doing and good things will happen, that advice doesn't change. But I also think it's healthy and good, and wise, to be thinking about where you want to go, what you want to do and talk to people to learn about those things, and network to learn about those opportunities and those jobs so that you can have a little bit of a sight line because I do think that's healthy.


Dusty Weis:

I'm glad that you brought up mentorship, too, because I've been fortunate to have many, many mentors over the course of my career and each one has shaped me, and put me on a better trajectory. And ultimately, helped me find the job that I have now and can't thank them enough for that. But, the mentors that you had along the way, the crisis situations, the little mistakes, the faux pas, everything that we've discussed here, how did they change the way that you would ultimately come to work as a manager for direct reports, and eventually the entire communications team at Coke?


Ben Deutsch:

Well, I've found you learn a lot from examples of not great leadership, and then you also learn from examples of good leadership. I think one of the things that I learned that I tried to share when I became a manager was those lessons that I learned, especially that lesson that I learned when I made that huge mistake, or what I thought was a huge mistake, and thought I was bringing down the Coca-Cola company and learned that I, quite frankly, didn't. But, that idea of allowing and giving some cover to your team, I think was something that I learned that was so important.


Ben Deutsch:

Because Coke was a pressure cooker, still is a pressure cooker, especially in communications. A lot of that depends on, obviously, who you're working for and some CEOs are different than others. But, during my 11 years running the department, it was intense. It was zero sum game, so that made it hard. When I reflect back during that time, I was probably more conservative than I would like to be, and that I normally am. But, I what I tried to do is allow the people who were working for me to have more of that freedom to try different things, and to really take those intelligent risks. Was I as successful as I'd like? Probably not, because it was a very intense time, and like I said, you were evaluated based on your last story, or your last project so it's very competitive. That's very healthy, and as a manager and a leader, what you have to do is figure out ways to allow the people that work for you to have that freedom to take those intelligent risks.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah, certainly. Well, let's examine that period a little bit more, then. You assumed the reins of VP of communications right around the same time that the great recession of 2008 was setting in, speaking of being something of a black cloud as such things go. But, in the wake of all that uncertainty, the company saw somewhat of a turnaround there, and really following the recession, saw some golden years again. How did you help shape the company's approach to communications? And, how did the company's approach to communications change during your tenure, to help move the brand forward into the 21st Century?


Ben Deutsch:

That's a great question, a couple of things. One is that one of the great things of working at Coke was how valued communications always has been and will always continue to be. And, that's not the way it is at all organizations.


Ben Deutsch:

There was never any moment where I had to justify what we were doing. Clearly, I had to justify budgets and I had to demonstrate why certain things had value, and why we were going to spend money against them, but the idea, the work was never questioned. And quite frankly, it was valued and embraced. So that was one of the great benefits of working at a company like Coca-Cola, which again, is one of the world's best known brands and it allowed you, really, to take some big swings at things.


Ben Deutsch:

The other thing that I would say is that the company, any company, that tone is set largely by the CEO. And I learned, working for four CEOs, I learned that. And I learned, from a communications standpoint, how that one person can influence an entire culture of an organization that extends across 200 countries across the world. And, that was one of the most amazing things that I learned because I walked in thinking that, I think most people would think that, "Oh, one person really can't have influence on an organization that has 130,000 employees right across all of these continents." But boy oh boy, I clearly, clearly saw how important one person could be, and how that person, whether he or she embraced communications, and how they leveraged communications to successfully lead an organization. That was one of the things that was such a great learning for me, and really sets the tone from a communications perspective.


Ben Deutsch:

The last thing I would say is I think that one of the things I'm probably most proud of at Coke and how we changed while I was in that role is we recognized how important it was to have our own brand publishing platform. I think we were one of the first companies, really, to establish an incredibly sophisticated brand publishing platform. It was in 2012 and we introduced, basically, this program that was called Coca-Cola Journey, which was essentially taking our website and flipping it on its head, and turning it into a living, breathing digital news magazine that would basically serve as our content platform for communications. And then, would then be leveraged through all of our social channels.


Ben Deutsch:

That, to me, was one of the things that I think that I look back on and I was most proud of, is being a part of that and having the team that really, I can take very little credit, other than I was leading the team. But, I had a team below me that was amazing in how they were such forward thinking in this space, and how we created something that really changed the game from a communications perspective, and gave us an ability to talk directly to stakeholders in an incredibly sophisticated and creative way. Again, I'm biased, but that idea then was really adopted by a lot of big brands and we are typically held up as one of the early brands who embraced social and digital, from a corporate communications perspective.


Dusty Weis:

You retired from Coke in 2017, after 25 years with the company. And that is an especially storied run in a competitive field at a such a global level that chews a whole lot of people up and spits them out. And where most people would pick their feet up and settle into a comfortable retirement, maybe go fishing, maybe go golfing, you right now are hitting the books and taking econ finals?


Ben Deutsch:

Yeah. Yeah, and questioning the intellect... And definitely reminding myself how long it's been since I've taken econ, which takes me back to my junior year in high school.


Ben Deutsch:

I'm having a blast. In chapter two, I wanted to do some different things. I've always had designs on teaching, and I've been fortunate enough to go and be asked to teach at the University of Wisconsin in the summer, and just had such a great experience doing that, that I have decided that that's what I want to do. So going to school to get a Masters is really designed just for that, I'm getting a Masters in sports management from Temple University. But it's not about sports management, it's about having the degree so that I'd like to teach here in Atlanta where I live during the school year, and then go up to Wisconsin in the summer and teach in the summer.


Dusty Weis:

Not the winter, huh?


Ben Deutsch:

Exactly. No. I'll tell you though, I hadn't been in Madison during the summer since I was a college student, back in the '80s. So when I went up and taught a couple years ago, I couldn't believe how wonderful it was to be in Madison during the summer.


Dusty Weis:

There's nothing else quite like it.


Ben Deutsch:

Oh my God.


Dusty Weis:

Pitchers of beer down at Memorial Union Terrace, looking out over Lake Mendota at the sailboats, that is my happy place right there.


Ben Deutsch:

Well, that's where I had my office hours, was sitting at one of those tables and looking out on Lake Mendota. It is, it's a magical place. But anyway, what I'd like to do more of to teach here during the school year, in Atlanta, and then go up there in the summer. So having a Masters will make it easier for the universities here to hire me. They have some requirements, and so I thought, "Well, then let's do it."


Ben Deutsch:

And, I'm having a blast going to school, and as I've told people, it's really amazing how much fun it is to go to school when you're interested in learning. Which, as much as I'd love to say that I was when I was getting my undergraduate, I don't think that was the primary goal.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I think it's awesome. I think that the approach to retirement of considering it just the next chapter and not the end of the book is something that I'll be striving for someday, as well.


Dusty Weis:

Ben Deutsch, the former VP of communications for Coca-Cola. The next time you're teaching a class on communications, please let me know how I can audit that class, because you have been generous enough to share hours of your time with me and I feel like I've only just started to scratch the surface of all the things that you have to teach young communicators. But thank you for being so generous with your time, and thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Ben Deutsch:

Thanks Dusty, it's been a pleasure. And good luck with what you're doing, I'm so impressed with Lead Balloon and it's a great service to PR and marketing professionals, so congratulations.


Dusty Weis:

Just to reiterate, I am so grateful to Ben Deutsch for all the time and insights he shared with us for this, and the last episode. Check out episode 18 if you missed it the first time around, there's really a ton to learn from a person who has been there and done that like Ben has.


Dusty Weis:

Once again, a big thank you as well to Jonathan Stern from JMS Platinum Marketing Communications in Florida, for making the introduction to Ben. And thanks to Dr. Martha Burk, for letting us see the Masters Tournament controversy through her eyes. I talked earlier about nuance, and it's my experience that you only get nuance by talking to as many people as possible for their side of the story. She was a lot of fun to talk to, and we are absolutely grateful for her perspective here.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Ballon. Please make sure you're subscribed in your favorite app, maybe tell a friend if you like the show. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Until the next time folks, thanks for listening, I'm Dusty Weis.




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