Will Coca-Cola’s chief scientist exiting help clear the air?

Coca-Cola’s chief scientist and health officer is stepping down from the company.

Rhona Applebaum was accused by The New York Times earlier this year of orchestrating a research with a non-profit organisation Global Energy Balance Network to downplay the role sugary drinks play in obesity. Soon after the report, Coca-Cola, in a bid to appear transparent, disclosed which institutions it funds.

Most recently the Associated Press also recently published juicy bits from emails exchanges between Applebaum and members of GEBN. These emails showed her helping carve out the group’s message. Since then international media has been picking up the issue and tearing Applebaum along with Coca-Cola apart.

This led to Muhtar Kent, chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola,releasing a statement to the FT:

Our support for scientific research was based on the desire to identify a more holistic, workable approach based on the best evidence.

In a statement to Marketing, Kent added that earlier this year, the company made a promise to become more transparent in order to be more viable in the global fight against obesity.

"We are proud of our innovation to date with our portfolio and what has been done over the last years, with more than 25% of our global portfolio in reduced-, low- or no-calorie options. [...]It has become clear to us that there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the Company’s involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network. Clearly, we have more work to do to reflect the values of this great company in all that we do.”

Now Coca-cola is no stranger to controversy and backlash.

The fizzy drink maker has over the years done a fair amount of work in trying to push for a healthy living with its diverse range of products. But with the exit of Applebaum, and the excerpts of emails published, has the company taken several steps backwards in trying to clean up its image?

Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director, PRecious Communications said the fact remains Coca-Cola did not actually manipulate research results or falsify any studies. He said:

It is a common practice in public relations to support those views that are more aligned with a brand’s or company’s products.

The question however has to be about how transparent a company should be about its efforts to drive a story through parties and influence. This is a common method to shape public opinion.

“It’s not about changing facts, but about picking those statistics and research findings that support your brand story as proof points,” Voedisch said.

Tarun Deo, managing director at Golin Singapore and SEA said fundamentally, from a marketing and communications point of view, it is about choice.

“Of course responsible companies that value their reputation need to have a gilt edged commitment to not mislead their consumers,” said Deo. Having said that, the misleading parts in this situation, are the grey areas.

“The public will never have a definitive answer on whether sugary drinks are the larger culprit causing obesity or physical inactivity. Common sense dictates that a combination of the two is clearly not good for anyone. In this instance Coke is simply touting a medical point of view to make their case.”