Heinz In A Pickle Over Politics

The HJ Heinz Co. has found itself in a sticky situation, and it’s not the ketchup that’s causing the mess. Blame the more-partisan-than-usual nature of this year’s election, which has prompted closer scrutiny of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s connection to the Pittsburgh company.

While experts say it’s a situation any business might face when a person with some link to the company gets involved in politics, the highly polarized electorate is making matters worse.

Heinz says it wants to get the facts straight. Teresa Kerry, wife of presidential contender John Kerry and heiress to the $500 million Heinz family fortune, is not involved in the company’s management, said a March 22 press release sent to 50 radio and talk shows. She owns less than 4 percent of company stock.

Heinz took the step after receiving 150 calls from consumers who threatened to boycott the products or said they would buy more, depending on their politics. The brouhaha began when one of the family’s charities (which Teresa Heinz chairs) gave money to Sept. 11 victims’ families who criticized President Bush for using footage of the terrorist attacks in his ads.

“[The election] is not our debate,” said Jack Kennedy, a Heinz rep. “We are an equal-opportunity condiment.” (Heinz has donated $17,905 to Republicans and $3,930 to Democrats so far during the 2004 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

“It’s wise for [Heinz] to make crystal clear that while it might share a name, it has no political ambitions,” said John Davis, a professor at Harvard Business School. “What choice do they have? Feelings are running so high in this election.”

Others disagree. “All they’ve done is to call more attention to the problem,” said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “It was a really dumb move.”