U.S. PR Pros Offer Solutions For Denmark Boycott Crisis

Much of the recent news coverage of the Islamic world's protests of cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have focused on the Muslim perceptions of blasphemy in depicting the Prophet Muhammad in comic situations, and in the resulting demonstrations which saw the loss of the life and destruction of embassies across the Islamic world. Less attention, though, has been given to the corporate side of the story. According to the BBC, the governments of 15 predominantly Muslim countries have announced boycotts of all Danish goods. The BBC also reports that within two weeks of the beginning of the global demonstrations earlier this month, nearly 200 jobs have been lost in Denmark because of the disruption of commerce within the Islamic world. If the boycott continues through the year, Denmark's economy stands to lose almost $2.6 billion. From the corporate PR perspective, the obvious question is: How can Denmark's corporate sector work to fight off economic damage under such tumultuous situations? For Denmark's government, the issue is both a challenge to public affairs communications and economic crisis communications. "The government's first step has been to control the damage done by political steps," explains Ambassador Torben Gettermann, Denmark's Consul General in New York. "That means to speak to the public and explain the Danish constitution and the limits that bind the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in their actions regarding free speech. That's the most important point. In terms of the economic repercussions, we are working out a strategy to come back into these markets and get an idea of how much is currently being lost." Ambassador Gettermann says the primary hit to Danish exports has come in dairy products; Denmark's other leading exports, electronics and manufactured goods, have yet to report significant economic damage from the boycott. U.S. PR Input On this side of the Atlantic, PR professionals offer caution to Denmark's suddenly beleaguered corporations. The message to their Danish counterparts: Time is your ally. "The problem most European firms face, especially Danish ones, is that there is virtually nothing they can do to inoculate themselves," says James Lee, president of The Lee Strategy Group, Inc. in Los Angeles. "It's similar to the worry American firms like McDonald's and Starbucks faced when the US went to war in Iraq. The threat in Islamic nations doesn't come from boycotts, but from physical attacks on assets and in almost every case, these tend to be one-day affairs in selected cities as the ruling clergy stirs their congregations up after prayers and they usually go out and storm an embassy or business." Lee notes the long-term threat to Denmark's economy is unlikely, given the circumstances surrounding the import-export schematics. "The larger threat of economic boycotts is not likely to happen since the vast majority of developing nations need the economic development that European firms bring in," he continues. "We advise companies therefore to focus their efforts on safeguarding personnel, working with in-country Muslim partners to restore operations and hire local staff. If a company does want to show support or have a closer alignment to the concerns of Muslims, we advise clients to reduce or temporarily stop advertising in publications that have carried the cartoon and make that fact known to Muslim publications. Other than that, we don't recommend any other proactive media activities on this issue." Of course, the heart of the issue (the perceived religious offense in the Jyllands-Posten cartoons) makes the subject all the more difficult. "This whole discussion is so sensitive," notes Mike Paul, president and senior counselor at MGP & Associates PR in New York. "As a general rule, there is no greater affinity than faith. It supersedes any brand. It is bigger than Coca-Cola or anything else." In dealing with what is (from the Danish perspective) a violent faith-driven challenge, Paul advises Denmark's companies to seek assistance from third parties with experience in such matters. "When operating from a fear perspective, it is dangerous," he says. "These companies need outside counsel. The PR counsel they are getting today for their day- to-day situations is very different from what they need." Gene Grabowski, vice president with Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC, echoes Paul's observations. "It is important for these companies to see where the tempered voices are," he says. "They need to look for allies. There are a number of voices in the Islamic world who are saying: These people don't represent us." Grabowski suggests Danish companies wait for the street violence to disappear completely before making proactive moves to resume commerce, comparing the situation to the aftermath of a fire-destroyed building. "You can't go in and rebuild while the ambers are still hot," he says. "You need a cooling off period. To step in now with words or actions which are well-intended can actually flame the fire. If a company tries to 'fix things,' it could actually create a worse situation. They need time for observing, planning and considering their next moves." If there is any bright news for Denmark's corporate sector, it would come in an American response to the crisis. "We've had a lot of e-mail and calls from people across America who want to buy more Danish goods," says Ambassador Gettermann. "We are trying to put together a list of where they can buy them." Contacts: Ambassador Torben Gettermann, torget@um.dk; James Lee, jlee@leestrategy.com; Mike Paul, mpaul@mgppr.com; Gene Grabowski, ggrabowski@levick.com.

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