MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5
C O R P O R A T E P R O F I L E
The Ogilvy & Mather Flak MachineInterview with John Margaritis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ogilvy and Mather Public Relations
MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: Do you have a general comment about the document titled "Proactive Neutralization: Nestle Recommendations Regarding The Infant Formula Boycott," produced by your group and dated March 15, 1989?
JOHN MARGARITIS: That document is almost two months old and it's a dead issue.
MM: Is Nestle still a client of yours?
MARGARITIS: Yes. These are recommendations we made that were rejected. Nestle told us that they felt that they didn't need to do any kind of program like that, that their record was strong enough having never been in violation of the WHO Code. So, they thanked us for our thinking and that was it.
MM: And what was your response?
MM: Did you help in writing the report?
MM: One of the sections advocates "neutralizing" critics of infant formula and of Nestle. What did you mean by the word "neutralize"?
MARGARITIS: Tell our side of the story so that anyone who had a negative feeling about Nestle could actually see what the company had done.
MM: In the report, you talk about the program being built around the idea of "neutralizing and defusing the issue by quietly working with key interest groups." And what key interest groups did you intend to work with?
MARGARITIS: All the groups that had an interest in the boycott.
MM: And in what way did you intend to work with them?
MARGARITIS: Have Nestle people meet with them directly to tell Nestle's position.
MM: What did you mean when you wrote that one objective was to "initiate an early warning system through which Nestle gains awareness of actions being planned and is equipped to take appropriate proactive or reactive steps."
MARGARITIS: Let me ask you a question before I answer that. Why is this of interest since the entire program was rejected?
MM: Because Ogilvy & Mather is a respected, large, international business organization, and people have an interest in knowing if you are advocating an early warning system.
MARGARITIS: If somebody was going to take a negative position against your company, wouldn't you like to know before they announced it to the public that they were going to do so?
MM: The question is how would I find out about that. And how did you plan to find out about those activities?
MARGARITIS: That I am not at liberty to tell you. It varied from group to group, from issue to issue.
MM: And why aren't you at liberty to say?
MARGARITIS: Because we never put it in an action so it doesn't matter. It's a moot point. And I don't plan to give away my strategies for publication for other firms.
MM: The implication though, from the words "early warning system" is that Ogilvy & Mather would somehow be engaged in some kind of covert activity.
MARGARITIS: That's absurd.
MM: Clearly, Nestle and the boycott organizers are adversaries.
MARGARITIS: Of course.
MM: And adversaries don't tip each other off.
MARGARITIS: Well, let me ask you a question. How did you get our document?
MM: From the boycott organizers.
MARGARITIS: And how do you think they got it. Do you think that they were acting in some subversive way or do you think we sent it to them?
MM: I have no idea. How do you think they got it?
MARGARITIS: I think somebody infiltrated us and got the document or infiltrated Nestle or any one of Nestle companies that had a copy of it.
MM: Or someone just sent it in a plain envelope to them.
MM: I guess my question then is, are you saying assuming that the Nestle boycott obtained it through subversive means, are you saying that that justifies...
MARGARITIS: No, let me tell you how we would have gotten the information. It's really very simple. People on issues like this talk all the time to make their positions known. Nestle has a lot of employees in the United States, we have a lot of employees in the United States. We have a lot of contacts all over the country. All we've done is marshall those contacts to say, "If you hear anything about boycott activity, filter it back through a central source." Now, that doesn't sound particularly sophisticated, but when you look at where we have offices, you get a lot of information that way. All of the organizations that have shown interest in the boycott in the past have publications and have newsletters. All we do is monitor them and track them. We watch the media. It's very easy to run a NEXIS and a LEXIS search on boycott stories and then follow that up.
MM: But that doesn't give you early warning.
MARGARITIS: It kind of does because most of that stuff starts out local.
MM: On the issue of the Channel One Whittle Communications proposal. Why couch it in a news show? Don't you feel it's being a little devious with young people's minds, saying "This is news" when in fact it's the straight corporate line?
MARGARITIS: Well, you have no idea what the content is going to be. I mean, you're making a supposition. We hadn't even gotten to the point of putting program elements together on that. Thirty percent of what you see on the news is in some way influenced by some interest organization, whether it be a group or a corporation. Video news releases all over the place. Especially for pharmaceutical companies. That's how they get their message out.
MM: Is there a problem for Nestle to be sponsoring a news show for young children?
MARGARITIS: Why? Does Nestle make products that are bad for young children?
MM: Well, according to some, infant formula and Nestle products injure and kill children worldwide.
MARGARITIS: That's why you need to talk to Thad Jackson [Nestle spokesperson], because you're coming from that negative bent. Nestle has abided by the Code of Conduct. They have never once been cited for being in violation of the WHO Code.
MM: What have been the repercussions of this document being made public?
MARGARITIS: Some embarrassment for me.
MM: Has anybody been dismissed or fired as a result?
MARGARITIS: Absolutely not.
MM: Have you launched an investigation to find out?
MARGARITIS: We've checked as best we can, internally and with everyone who had copies of the document and there's just no way of knowing.
MM: Do you feel that if the document was not released to the public the recommendations would not have been rejected by Nestle?
MARGARITIS: No, they were rejected long before that was released.
MM: People are interested in this because it looks as if you're interested in infiltration and that kind of thing.
MARGARITIS: Let me just explain something. Many of the interest groups that support the boycott in the past are church groups, are religious groups. Most of them have national conventions that come up this spring and summer. Before the local chapters go to the national, they discuss what issues they would like to bring to national. And that's discussed on a local basis and that's published on a local basis, usually through newsletters and things and it's public record and it's very easy to track where they're coming from as they go into the convention. So it would be very nice to know if like 10 local chapters of religious group A are going in and saying "We ought to support a Nestle boycott" before they go into that convention. That's helpful information. There's no subterfuge. There's no infiltration. There's nothing like that. But if you are on the lookout for that kind of information, it's very easy to obtain.
That was the proactive, let's find out what's going on on an early warning system before the conventions are held. Perhaps we can get some time at the convention to present our own position if we know it's going to be an issue.
MM: Why not deal with the issues straight up? You say that Nestle doesn't violate the WHO Code, that infant formula is not hurting babies worldwide in areas where there's not clean water. Why not just deal with it at that level? Why go down to the grass roots and find out what these church groups are trying to do?
MARGARITIS: If there's no interest why raise the issue? Let's take Exxon for example. With the oil spill, all of a sudden, Exxon is being boycotted on various levels. You can bet your bottom dollar that Exxon has identified every possible interest group that may perceive them negatively and that has media clout that could possibly expand the boycott and find out what they're trying to do so they can go tell their side of the story. Now, I happen to think they have a very weak side of the story.
People try to protect their operations. Every consumer company in this country gets slapped with some kind of boycott. Look what's happening with the media.
MM: You're saying Exxon does it, everybody does it. But why do it when you have access to mass media. If you need to get the word out buy media and do it.
MARGARITIS: No, we don't need to get the word out except to those specific people who are interested. Why would I want to call somebody who could care less about what my company does and tell them my story?
MM: If a church group is interested in Nestle's side of the story, they'll call Nestle or write Nestle.
MARGARITIS: No, they won't. Not necessarily. They've not done it in the past.
When you get into a boycott, it becomes an emotional issue. And it's very difficult to deal with an emotional issue with straight fact because people tend to discount it. So, we need to know, before it becomes emotional, so we can deal with it on a factual basis.