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BOTN Friday Fail with Ben Deutsch, Former VP of Communications, Coca-Cola

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Karen Stoychoff

In this season 2 episode of Back of the Napkin, Ben Deutsch, former VP of Communications at Coca-Cola, shares his eye-opening experience dealing with the news media during a whistleblower scandal, and what small business owners can learn from how he confronted the challenge. Listen to the episode.  


Imagine going to work every day at one of the most revered corporations in the world. Your job? Talking to reporters about the company mission to refresh the world and make a difference.

Talking to reporters from across the globe certainly sounds glamourous, and it has its moments, according to Ben Deutsch, former VP of Communications at Coca-Cola. But serving as corporate spokesperson during a whistleblower lawsuit that made international headlines is not for the faint of heart.

The lawsuit brought by a former employee rocked Coca-Cola shortly after Deutsch was promoted to corporate spokesperson. The employee publicly claimed Coca-Cola manipulated product test run results, an accusation that turned out to be true. As Coca-Cola publicly admitted the mistake, Deutsch would learn about the power of words, the importance of focusing on your core value proposition, and the mindset required to deal with the high-stake world of business.

Even Doing Your Job Right Can Have Negative Consequences.

The Coca-Cola team prepared key messages for Deutsch to use in his media interviews. The team agreed that Deutsch would confirm, if asked, that the SEC was investigating Coca-Cola over the accusation. Deutsch sailed through numerous media interviews without a single question about the SEC investigation, until the very last one with Bloomberg Wire Service. The reporter asked about a potential SEC investigation; Deutsch did his job and confirmed the story. His words, while accurate, resulted in a breaking news story. Coca-Cola stock dropped $3 a share, costing shareholders billions of dollars. The incident reminded him that words are “powerful” and “can impact a business.” He describes the incident as one “I will never ever, ever forget.”

In another instance, Deutsch was doing interviews for a positive Coca-Cola project when he decided to drop his opinion on the topic. That cavalier moment resulted in a negative article on the company raised the ire of the Chairman.

Lessons Learned for Big and Small Businesses.

Ultimately, Deutsch describes the whistleblower incident as a pivotal moment in his career. “It was the most important lesson, and an experience that, thankfully, I had because it helped put in perspective the work that we do and it gave me a perspective that I carried forward,” he said. “Part of it is making mistakes and learning.”

Deutsch said he learned the importance of developing and delivering key messages consistent with your business’s core values, and to avoid the temptation to improvise when talking to the media. He notes the same lessons apply for small businesses when dealing with customers. “Make sure you have your key messages for your day-to-day interactions and stick to them. And, realize that if you do have a product or service problem, admit the problem, have a plan to fix it, and move on.”

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