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Pricey Freedom of the Press

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BBC News: Danish-Swedish dairy giant Arla Foods says the ongoing boycott of Danish products in the Middle East had so far cost it between 40m and 50m.

As the Muslim world refuses to buy Danish goods in protest over cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, Arla is losing 1m a day. Arla has also had to send home 170 employees across Denmark due to the impact of the reduced sales.

Ouch.

I thought it was extraordinary for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to publish those cartoons (caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed) when it would have been apparent to anyone that they undoubtedly would cause major offence to large numbers of people (and clearly have). Like most western countries, Denmark enjoys freedom of the press. But just because they could publish them doesn’t mean they should.

The situation is further worsened when other newspapers in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Hungary re-published those cartoons this week. What on earth were they thinking? Ah, freedom of the press. Right.

Allan Jenkins – who has been chronicling some interesting things at Arla Foods regarding their blogs – has a thoughtful post on what this story can teach us. In his post he also raises a key point of distinct relevance to organizational communication:

[...] What do communicators need to think about in a world where an article in an obscure newspaper calls down boycotts on your company? When a controversy like this can leave employees pulled in several directions: loyalty to religious faith, a desire to do a good job, a desire not to be beaten at the factory gates.

Empathy for different cultures and beliefs – even when tolerance by some of the differing beliefs by others runs very thin – must be a prerequisite for any organization today doing business in any country, not just those in the Middle East. Respect for such differing beliefs would be woven into the corporate fabric (or DNA, as some would call it) of any organization. This isn’t a new idea – tolerance, respect, etc, are already part and parcel of the expected behaviours and attitudes by employees in most companies today.

So it’s not too hard to see the role communicators can play within an organization confronted with the situation as Allan describes. Indeed, a situation such as is confronting Arla Foods and many other Danish businesses.

Where it gets pretty complicated, though, is making any difference or exercising any influence on the strong (and inflexible-looking) opinions of people outside the organization.

These are easy answers. The fact is – there are no easy answers.

Neville Hobson is the author of the popular NevilleHobson.com blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly the VP of New Marketing at Crayon. Visit Neville Hobson’s blog: NevilleHobson.com.

Pricey Freedom of the Press
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