The controversy over cartoons published six months ago in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten has exploded into an international incident, and has become a crisis for European countries doing business in the Middle East.

Danish companies in particular face a challenge. Dairy giant Arla Foods, which makes the butter Lurpak, estimates it is losing £1 million a day because of a boycott of Danish products, and other Danish companies—toy company Lego and specialty pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk have also been targeted.

And they have not been helped by the actions of other European companies—including Nestlé and French supermarket giant Carrefour—seeking to distance themselves from the crisis. “Shame on those European firms and companies that are now advertising in the Middle East with ‘we aren’t Danes’ and ‘we don’t sell Danish products,’” says Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi. “From now on Nestlé chocolate will never taste like it did before.”

There have been suggestions that Danish consumers might boycott those companies that repudiate Danish products.

So Danish companies find themselves in a difficult position. Says Mary Rayner, of he U.K.’s Ethical Consumer organization, “Normally, the purpose of a boycott is to force companies to change their actions, but this is different. Arla has no real links to this newspaper so, in a sense, boycotting it is not logical. It is very difficult for Arla to respond because there is no link between it and this situation.”

But some U.S. public relations professionals do have advice for the Danish marketers:

“Normally, as you know, most boycotts are not terribly effective in terms of the actual impact on sales.  Time and time again, we’ve learned that if people have a craving for a Danish ‘Toms Yankie Bar’ (I just looked that up on the web) most forget about the boycott if they ever knew about it.  Though obviously, from a reputation standpoint, any coverage of a boycott clearly doesn’t enhance one’s standing in the marketplace. In this instance, however, since it is perceived to be a direct attack on a religion, a boycott might actually get more traction than usual. I think that if indeed Danish companies are targeted for boycotts, the response has to be something along the lines of ‘while the company is committed to the principles of free speech, the sentiments in the cartoon in no way represent the company’s position and we are sympathetic to any of our customers who have taken offense.’”
Chris Atkins, corporate practice leader, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

“If it is possible, laying low is the best thing you can do. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing.  Let other voices be heard.  Keep in mind that no one speaks for all Muslims, so there’s nothing you can say or do that won’t offend someone or other. This, too, shall pass.  When it does, and it’s got to be timed carefully, step up PR and community relations efforts.  It’s a slow build.”
Al Geduldig, senior consultant, Fleishman-Hillard

“I believe they need to repudiate the cartoons and disassociate themselves from the publication that did this. Then they need bridge-building activities such as speaking before Arab business leadership groups, writing op-ed pieces and perhaps forming an alliance of Danish companies that jointly repudiates the act and address the issue of defending mutual respect and importance of positive inter-group relations. Ideally, I would like to identify a group of moderate Muslim leaders (if not in Denmark, then within the European community), who are prepared to address the matter of the protest in a civilized fashion and schedule a number of high-level meetings, in which these moderate Muslims educate the Danish—or European—business community and others about why there is need to protect Islam’s message against ‘idolatrous misinterpretation.’ But based on information observed from moderate Muslim leadership they are generally afraid to speak out because of radical financial support of the mosque. That, in my opinion, is why moderate voice are silent. Thus, I don’t think the technique will work.”
Kenneth Makovsky, president, Makovsky & Company 

“The Danish companies are tracked down in a no win situation. They must adopt a low corporate and marketing profile—not to become the target of choice versus their Danish peers in their market and industry sector. To achieve that they stop advertising and withdraw any promotional materials or marketing claim refering to Danish cultural feature or origin, then pray that their government will better manage the crisis, and that their shareholders will accept the loss, and wait for a better time.”
Michel Ogrizek, vice chairman, Edelman

APCO Worldwide has created a practice devoted to what it calls “business diplomacy.” In this article, APCO executive vice president former Ambassador Elizabeth Jones argues that companies should use the principles of “business diplomacy” to manage this crisis.

“The single action of a Danish newspaper editor has seriously damaged the reputations of both his country and of all Danish businesses. Neither this decision by the Danish editor nor the explosive repercussions of the printing of cartoons offensive to Muslims could have been foreseen by Danish companies that operate in Muslim countries.

“But it is the companies that bear the brunt of the boycott of Danish products. Danish companies will want, then, to deploy the techniques of “business diplomacy” to address and try to overcome the boycott and the widespread damage to the reputation of their country—and by extension, their businesses.

“Deploying “business diplomacy” methods requires first pulling apart the elements of the problem.

“It is sacrilege to depict the Prophet Muhammad in any guise. To have done so and to have added the bomb in the turban caricature added outrage to the insult of sacrilege. When the editor made the affirmative decision to print the twelve cartoons, he brought the sacrilege into the public domain. From that point, the problems were compounded by what we would call mistakes of process. A group of Muslim ambassadors, accurately sensing the ease with which this issue could spin out of control, requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. Whatever the reasons for refusing to take the meeting, this refusal to meet became a serious mistake of process.

“The issue grew beyond the substance of the problem, and became a question of whether or not a meeting was held: an easily avoidable circumstance.

“The Danes were not alone in focusing on the rights of a free press and free speech in defending their handling of what has become a serious crisis. And it is not for Americans to preach to the Europeans how to handle these kinds of issues, as we have serious problems of our own in the Muslim world. But there are in the U.S. Constitution limits on free speech: the limit of propriety (including pornography and hate crimes), limits dictated by good taste and limits imposed by danger (one is not “free” to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater).

“At the same time, it must be understood that attacks on Danish Embassies and burning of the EU flag is not simply a response to this one incident. There is an overlay of suspicion that the West is all too prone to demonstrate a lack of respect for Islam. Perceived imbalance in the Middle East peace process, the invasion of Iraq and endless deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S.-led coalition forces, not to mention the Abu Ghuraib and Guantanamo factors, all play into poisonous feelings about Western attitudes toward Islam.

“It is too late to prevent a problem. Danish companies are in damage control mode now. While this limits the scope of action, there are nevertheless some strategies that can be deployed.

“Danish companies might collaborate to influence their government to make statements that will finally begin to calm tempers in the Muslim world. While it is inappropriate to punish the newspaper or its editor, Danish leaders can express regret that demonstrates their understanding of the cultural and religious sensitivities that were rubbed so raw by printing the cartoons—not once but several times—and that were knifed even deeper by focus on the principle of free speech while ignoring the concomitant responsibility to demonstrate an appropriate level of cultural and religious sensitivity. 

“Whether or not the political conflagration was stoked by Iran and Syria becomes immaterial. Whatever the backdrop, Danish businesses face a crisis.

“Danish business might also reach out to business colleagues in countries where they manufacture and distribute goods. These business representatives will have wise counsel for their Danish counterparts on ways to address the problem in the local context. They will have advice on whom best to reach out to – are there Muslim clerics who are particularly influential (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even in Europe) with whom Danish business people could meet and work out ways first to contain the outrage and then repair the damage. 

“There are important media outlets, such as al-Jazeera TV, with which Danish business reps could meet to take advice on implementing a strategy to turn the corner on this problem. Businesses could ask that Danish Embassies throughout the Muslim world identify members of parliament in various countries with whom Danish business delegations could meet to express their regrets, and to consult with them on ways to demonstrate their respect for Islam through support of local programs. 

“Danish business might persuade their government to add an element on the study of Islam as a great world religion in the Danish public school system, programs that the businesses could then underwrite.

“The principles of “business diplomacy” involve engaging with any sector of a society that might influence the outcome in a way that allows Danish business to overcome the Muslim world boycott and restore the good name of Danish companies and of Denmark itself.  There is no limit to the sectors of society with which to engage.  Successful “business diplomacy” requires an integrated, proactive approach to get ahead of problems as much as possible – and when that is not possible, to launch damage control and repair strategies quickly and efficiently.  It is never too late for that.”