“You have to look more broadly at the benefits that sponsors deliver”

Joel Morris, public affairs and communications director of Coca-Cola GB and Ireland, tells Lucy Handley about dealing with criticism from IOC president Jacques Rogge and the company’s Olympic legacy plans.

joel morris

Watch a video interview with Joel Morris here

Marketing Week (MW): How has digital and social media changed the way you work?

Joel Morris (JM): You have to be constantly flexible and adaptable. The thing that demonstrates that more than anything is the growth of digital and social media over the last few years.

That journey is far from complete, certainly for me personally and people within my team and for marketing colleagues. It has been quite a steep learning curve over the last few years about how we reach our consumers. On one hand, it is a wonderful opportunity and means by which to connect with your consumers, but the way in which you do it has to be different. It requires a bit of flexibility, creativity and new approaches.

The flipside of that is it also requires you, as a PR professional, to rethink how you manage issues: you need to be more vigilant, things can move very quickly – it gives more of your consumers a voice.

It is sometimes hard to predict what you see in social media that will grow or even snowball and what won’t. Sometimes it’s the things you weren’t expecting to escalate that do. So there is a real challenge in terms of being ultra vigilant, and then knowing what your roles and responsibilities [are] within your issues and crisis management process, and how you respond to those people.

MW: What are the challenges of social media for a large company in particular?

JM: One of the challenging bits for large corporate is this kind of desire to control everything that is out there. But actually in the digital space and social media you simply cannot do that and you have to acknowledge that. Also the tone and content of how you respond [needs to be considered] and it is a more informal forum than we are used to – you need to be a bit more human and a bit less corporate.

MW: International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge questioned Coca-Cola’s and McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics. How do you square the fact that the company produces some very sugary, calorific drinks that do contribute to the obesity problem, with sponsorship of something that is about health and athleticism?

JM: I don’t think you can blame rising obesity rates on any single food or drink product, it is a more complex problem than that. To try and lay it at the doorstep of Coke or any other company is a misjudgment.

That said, yes, our products do contain calories but I think it is perfectly possible to enjoy our products on a regular basis without becoming obese. Coke has been around for 126 years and obesity is something that is far more recent than that.

Our sponsorship of the Olympics dates back to 1928 and I think we are a good fit. Our brand values as a company are aligned with those of the Olympics. It’s about unity, enjoyment and sharing and I think our heritage as a sponsor makes us acutely aware of the importance of protecting the Olympic values.

You have to look more broadly at the benefits that sponsors deliver and I think sometimes that gets lost in the debate. Some of the money that comes in from sponsors as opposed to the public purse filters down into national Olympic committees; it supports national athletes, helps send them to the games and pays for some of the infrastructure.

So there are benefits that corporate sponsorship delivers that are sometimes overlooked. Part of the reason for us doing a legacy project is to try and measure some of those in a robust and accurate way and understand what some of those are.

The other thing point about our products is there is nothing wrong with a classic Coke. But if you don’t want one there is a Diet Coke or Coke Zero. For every major brand we sell there is a low-calorie or no-calorie version. We also do juices, energy drinks and waters and we put a lot of information on packs which enables consumers to make a choice about what they drink.

MW: Tell us more about your Olympic legacy plans.

JM: One thing we are doing is building a recycling plant and I do think that will deliver and have a social value and environmental benefit. We are using biogas trucks, our coolers are HFC [hydrofluorocarbon] free and we designed all our equipment in the Olympic venue so it can be repurposed permanently. So all that [contributes to] our reasons why we are an appropriate sponsor for the Games.

MW: During the Games you launched some communication that talked about the sustainability commitments Coca-Cola had made. Was that a reaction to the criticism, a way to balance it?

JM: It wasn’t a reaction to the criticism, the criticism started long before we ran those ads. We just wanted to remind people of some of the positive things that we were doing, specifically around the Games. Given that during Games time there was maximum visibility of the Olympics, what was happening in London and the consumption of UK media, it was a sensible time to do it.

MW: How do you work with the corporate PR team at Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta? Are there frustrations that decisions have to go through the HQ?

JM: I think that is just a fact of life of working in a big multinational, a large corporation and most people would realise that. My responsibility is Great Britain and Ireland but in my job you have to remain very cognisant of the fact that we are a global brand available in 206 countries.

I don’t find working with Atlanta an issue. A good example of that is around the Olympics. [The sponsorship] is a corporate agreement with the IOC and our campaign is developed by the global team in Atlanta in close conjunction with an Olympic marketing team here in London.

If you think about the Olympics, it’s a wonderful opportunity to connect the brand with the billions of people worldwide watching it and you have to be aware of that bigger picture. If you are a local custodian of a global brand, it is certainly not problematic and it’s not a frustration.

MW: How do you work with the marketing team to implement local initiatives?

JM: We work very closely. In 2010, we created the integrated marketing and communications team at a business unit level – for us that is north west Europe and the Nordics, so they are developing campaigns to run across multiple countries.

There is a PR person within that [business unit] team who will then co-ordinate with someone in the local team in the UK – the communications manager. That person becomes part of the team at the outset of the project. So it is a close working relationship and increasingly the brand teams are pulling the PR people into the planning process very early, more so than they used to in the past at Coke. They want their input and thoughts as to what is going to fly or work from a PR perspective.

Then the challenge – given our business unit is nine countries – is how you make it relevant locally. So that is sometimes the tough nut to crack but I think we are doing a good job. If you look at the Diet Coke partnership with designer Jean Paul Gaultier, that has worked brilliantly across multiple markets and got a lot of PR mileage earlier in the year in the UK.

We also did a PR-led Schweppes campaign around the Diamond Jubilee weekend, looking for Britain’s ‘social monarchs’, the people up and down the country who were championing their local street party. We worked with a photographer and party planner to help them plan their Diamond Jubilee weekend and again that delivered some fantastic results from a PR perspective. Sometimes where budget is constrained then PR becomes an even more significant part of the marketing mix.

So we are involved very early on, the collaboration is close and I think we are starting to see the results from a PR perspective on brand campaigns.



Joel Morris’ top tips

1. Be clear and concise when it comes to crisis management

I did a postgraduate degree at Cardiff University in journalism and then went to work for a small agency called Regester Larkin which focused on issues management and crisis management. There were some basic principles for communications professionals I learnt there that have stood me in good stead throughout the rest of my career.

Things like the need for clarity, being concise and written skills are fundamental. Using plain English and the speed of response. The ability to say – if there is something that has unintentionally gone wrong – [having] the ability to acknowledge that error and apologise.

I think sometimes corporates find this hard, but the sooner you do that the sooner you can move on and not necessarily be forgiven, but the media story moves on and consumers understand that occasionally things go wrong.

2. Be transparent

At Pfizer, one of the things I learnt was the benefit for corporations to have greater transparency. I think the pharmaceuticals industry had not been proactive enough in terms of explaining what it did, the benefits of the products it developed and the medicines it bought to market. I think it was a little late in doing that.

While I was there, what we tried to do was educate consumers and media about the process involved, how tough it is from going from scratch to a new medicine: something that goes through multiple clinical trials and through hundreds of millions of dollars.

3. Talk to senior management

The other key learning for me is the importance of constant dialogue with your senior management team. Very often there is persuasion to be done – there is always an internal debate to be had about aspects of communications whether we are proactive or reactive, the content and tone of what we say where, we say it and who to. You have to have a clear view on that.

And if you think it is important you have to stick to your guns, there is certainly a degree of persistence required and I think that is an important quality to have. One other thing would be that you just have to be constantly flexible and adaptable.

Joel Morris’ career to date

Joel joined Coca-Cola in 2007 as director of media relations for Europe. In April 2011 he was appointed public affairs and communications director for Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland. He leads the company’s government and stakeholder relations, corporate and brand communications and issues management.

Before Coca-Cola he was at Pfizer for five years, most recently as director of media relations for the European research and development operation.

Morris trained at Cardiff University’s school of journalism and spent several years in consultancy with Regester Larkin. He has advised clients including Vodafone, British Airways, BG plc and Standard Chartered Bank.



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