By Diane Brady
For a glimpse of the blogosphere's growing power, witness the brouhaha now afflicting PepsiCo (PEP ) over comments earlier this week by President and CFO Indra Nooyi before the graduating class of Columbia University's B-school.
Her comparison of the five major continents to the five fingers on her hand -- with the U.S.(not a continent, mind you) being the controversial middle finger and Africa the often-ignored pinkie -- will strike many as entirely innocuous.
As she put it: "Each of us in the U.S. -- the long middle finger -- must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand…not the finger…. Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand -- giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers -- but instead scratching our nose and sending a far different signal." (Click to read the full text of her speech.)
Yet a burst of blog outrage after a May 15 commencement speech has forced the beverage and food giant to post an apology on its home page. That follows an earlier statement from Nooyi in which she restated her love of this "Promised Land" of the United States and protests that she "would never say or do anything to detract from our great nation."
Perhaps Nooyi should have known her remarks would grab attention. She is, after all, is one of the darlings of Corporate America -- a savvy and often witty native of Madras, India, whose rise has been closely followed here and in her home country. But bloggers of all stripes are having a field day with Nooyi's speech.
One writer at right-wing powerlineblog.com, which last year played a leading role in exposing the forged documents that prompted Dan Rather's early resignation from CBS Evening News, described Nooyi's remarks as a "sophomoric diatribe", arguing that it was as if "an audacious undergraduate had sought to impersonate the distinguished executive of a multinational corporation and parody the genre of the commencement speech. The trope of the middle finger brings it almost to the level of the transcendent tastelessness of the 'Harvard sucks' prank."
Others bloggers used her words as a platform to disparage women's rights in India or view her stance as a direct slap to U.S. troops. Meanwhile, The Times of India tried to take the executive's side: "Who could blame Nooyi for thinking East Coast campuses at least were still bastions of liberal thinking and giving them a 'I'm-one-of-you vibes'?" the paper said in her defense.
PepsiCo finally was forced to release her speech after much hemming and hawing. In it, Nooyi is funny (if a little forced) and quite measured in her analogy. All the fingers have to work in harmony, she points out. Africa may be small from an economic standpoint but "when our little finger hurts, it affects the whole hand."
Asia, the thumb, is "strong, powerful, and ready to assert herself as a major player on the world's economic stage." Europe, the index finger, is the cradle of democracy and pointed the way for Western civilization and laws. Latin America, the ring finger, is "hot, passionate and filled with the sensuous beats of the mambo, samba, and tango." She even apologizes to Antarctica and Australia for leaving them out.
That leaves North America, or more specifically, the U.S. Sure, being dubbed the middle finger instantly evokes a certain attitude. But Nooyi almost bends over backwards in her political correctness, noting that "the middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively." Her message: "It's not enough just to understand that the other fingers co-exist. We've got to consciously and actively ensure that every one of them stands tall together, or that they bend together when needed."
FROM SPARK TO INFERNO.
Such prose essentially borders on pablum in this country of raging opinions. Yet, because of the noise in cyberspace, Nooyi felt compelled to issue a statement saying, "I have come to realize that my words and examples about America unintentionally depicted our country negatively and hurt people." Furthermore, she claimed to appreciate the "honest comments" that had been shared with her before reiterating once again her love of America.
Better to err on the side of caution, perhaps, especially in a company that hawks soft drinks and potato chips to young people. But it's a shame that one executive's carefully worded opinion at a college speech should prompt such a backlash, then a mea culpa. In today's world of blogs and instant communications, though, even mild criticism can become fodder for a cyber-conflagration.
Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York