Good Enough to Eat (1989)
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Good Enough to Eat (1989)

One by one foods which were once staples of the American diet have fallen prey to activists whose mission is to protect the eating public from big business interests that would otherwise happily poison their systems with carbohydrates and cholesterol and

Paul Holmes

 


 

First it was sugar. Then it was salt. Then it was red meat. Then palm oil. Then butter. And now it's apples. One by one foods which were once staples of the American diet have fallen prey to consumer activists whose self-appointed mission is to protect the eating public from big business interests that would otherwise happily poison their systems with carbohydrates and cholesterol and alar.

From humble origins, consumer groups have grown increasingly sophisticated, as the National Resources Defense Council's neat manipulation of 60 Minutes over the alar in apples issue demonstrated. The NRDC may have gotten into a terrible tangle by promising the story on an exclusive basis to 60 Minutes, and then having to fend off Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post, but the story did have the desired effect of achieving "maximum public impact."

The alliance of attention-hungry "public interest" groups and a sensation-seeking media is indeed a powerful one, as recent events have shown, but it is one that food marketers must learn to deal with effectively. And for the most part they have done so. Evidence can be found on the shelves of any local supermarket, where red meat and apples still stand alongside the oat bran and organic bean sprouts, despite the fact that while consumer groups have been becoming more adept at manip­ulation, the media itself has become a more than willing accomplice in publicizing food scares. Newsmen who consider themselves skeptics when dealing with almost all other sources—and particularly when dealing with big business—appear to accept the pro­nouncements of "public interest" groups and "experts" with the flimsiest of qualifications (and in the case of NRDC, even actress Meryl Streep) as though they were written on tablets of stone.

"I have the greatest respect for the intelligence of the American consumer," says Louise Pollock, senior vice ­president of the food group at Ketchum Public Relations. Pollock has helped clients such as the American Egg Board and the National Meat & Livestock Commission through crises similar to that currently faced by the apple producers. "Generally speaking, the public will not be panicked by stories of this kind, which involve produce that is a part of their daily life, without examining the facts very carefully."

It is getting those facts before the public that presents marketing and public relations professionals with the greatest challenge, since in many cases the media will wait until a story has broken before inviting the accused company to respond, or will give more weight to the negative side of the story than the positive, or will even imply that self-interest leads business to distort the facts.

The experience of the apple industry when the alar story was breaking on 60 Minutes is sadly not atypical.

"We heard about the NRDC's research and the 60 Minutes feature several weeks before it was due to air and naturally we were concerned," says the public relations representative of one apple-juice manufacturer. "I called David Gelber [the producer of the segment in question] and told him that we were prepared to provide a spokesperson who would present the apple industry point of view. I was told that the story would be an attack on the EPA for its poor methods and that the problem of alar in apples would be only one of several issues discussed. The impression was that apples would simply be mentioned in passing. When the show was broadcast it took us completely by surprise. I feel I was deliberately misled."

Gelber was not available for comment as this magazine went to press. 

60 Minutes also failed to highlight the fact that only 5% of US apple growers spray with afar and that UDMH (the substance alar breaks down into) is not a proven carcinogen and that even if there were a proven danger from alar, apple consumption would need to be significantly above the norm for it to prove dangerous. "Scare tactics are unfortunate," says Tommy Irvin, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner. "Nobody is going to eat six tons of apples a day for 70 years."

The truth of the matter, however, is that if one person in one million gets food poisoning and dies, or may have an increased chance of contracting cancer, because of something in your product, that one person is a news story. The other nine hundred and ninety nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine are not. This simple truth almost inevitably leads to an exaggeration of the problem, both by the media and thus in the minds of the public.

A classic case in point is the Quixotic one-man crusade against palm oil currently being waged by millionaire heart-attack victim Phil Sokolof, who has been running national newspaper ads in an attempt to educate consumers about the cholesterol dangers of palm oil. Sokolof does not rely on scientific data so much as on emotional appeal, yet the media have seized on him (a recent cover story in New York Newsday being typical of the uncritical nature of the coverage he has received.)

"This is just one guy with a hard on for palm oil," says a spokesman for one food company Sokolof has singled out for particular criticism, who asked to remain anonymous. "Frankly I'm astonished that he's being taken so seriously."

There is probably no way of preventing safety allegations reaching the media, even if you have evidence that refutes those allegations. Anheuser-Busch came close, however, when the issue was not safety but social responsibility. The Reverend Jesse Jackson organized a campaign against the brewer because it would not comply with his minority hiring policy. Anheuser-Busch argued that its own policies, already in place, went further towards helping minorities than those Jackson wished to impose from the outside. Spokesmen from the brewery followed Jackson on his publicity tour, contacting the media in every city he visited and urging them to ignore his publicity stunts—he bought a can of Budweiser in each city and then poured it out in the street—by providing them with statistics detailing the company's performance in minority hiring and equal opportunities.

Even this technique was only partially successful. In some cities the Jackson campaign was ignored by the media. In others—the majority—Jackson's protest was covered but the company managed to persuade the press to give it equal coverage. Eventually the protest was quashed.

In this case, as in others, credibility was the key. Anheuser-Busch overcame criticism because it produced facts and figures that were credible. In most cases, however, those facts and figures will have to come from outside the company. Advertising in which the company boasts of its own safety records or the wholesomeness of its products is unlikely to affect attitudes. The credibility of an outside expert is needed.

In research conducted for the apple industry last month, respondents were asked which groups or people would most convince them that apples and apple products were safe from reported dangers. They responded as follows:


 

Likely %

Not Likely %

Group of scientists

62

27

Independent testing agency

58

35

Environmental Protection Agency

54

36

Group of pediatricians

53

38

Prominent physician

45

42

Apple industry group

25

64

Prominent celebrity

8

86


The prominent celebrity was included in the questioning partly because the apple industry was interested in learning how effective Meryl Streep had been as a spokesperson for the NRDC. Despite the fact that companies routinely use celebrity spokesmen and women to persuade consumers to turn to their products, there was some outrage at Streep's lack of qualifications when it came to urging people not to eat alar­affected apples.

"I think one of the reasons they used a celebrity was that no self-respecting scientist could have presented the figures she did," says one critic.

However, the most significant finding was surely that reassurance that apples are safe must come from a third party, and from one who is well­qualified to comment on public health and safety. This is the approach that has been adopted by other groups in similar situations, including the American Egg Board when cholesterol became a major issue.

Years of bad publicity caused a significant decline in egg consumption in the early 1980s, climaxing with a Time cover story on cholesterol featuring a frowning face with two sunnyside eggs as the eyes. The Egg Board formed a Scientific Advisory Panel to advise the industry on the cholesterol issue, employed expert spokespeople, worked closely with the National Heart Lung & Blood Institute, and most interestingly used blood cholesterol screenings as an eduction tool.

The egg industry actually encouraged consumers to test their own cholesterol level, using the tests to emphasize that there was no need for those who did not score high on the tests to change their egg-eating habits. Its spokesmen stressed that eggs, eaten in moderation, could be a part of any diet.

"Often the most important thing is to inject a note of sanity and moderation into all the hysteria," says Ketchum's Louise Pollock. "The news comes out that something increases the risk of some disease in certain individuals and everyone reacts, when the fact is that most people have their own individual dietary needs. The fact was that it was perfectly safe for most people to go on eating eggs, and we wanted to get that message through the clutter.

"Another thing is that it is helpful to work with health organizations and with some of the people who are your critics. Despite the fact that from the industry perspective we sometimes feel that public interest groups have gone too far, they do perform a valuable function in keeping a check on what is put before the public. Many of the organizations we work with have tried to co-operate as closely as possible with their critics."

Many, like the beef industry, have recognized that criticism is valid, that there is a need for change. The beef producers' response to suggestions that red meat was too fatty went way beyond public relations posturing. The beef producers actually changed the way they reared their animals and marketed their products.

"What had happened was that the whole issue was being seen in terms that were too stark," says Tom McDermott, communications director for the Meat Board. "It was all black and white. People were talking about good food and bad food rather than about good diet and bad diet. There was a suggestion that everyone had to cut back, no matter what their lifestyle. So what we had to do was give people permission to eat meat. Most of them liked meat and wanted meat to be a part of their diet and so our challenge was to make it acceptable."

The beef industry changed breeding methods to raise leaner animals. It changed the way it packaged meat, including a Nutrifacts information label on every cut, giving information on precisely how much cholesterol, sodium and fat there was in that particular cut, as well as the calorie, protein, vitamin and mineral content. Supermarket meat counter supervisors were put through an education program by the Meat Board. Prominent chefs were commissioned to contribute to a book of recipes featuring red meat, but in smaller portions than had traditionally been common.

Research had shown that almost everyone could safely eat two three ounce portions of beef a day. It meant a end to the days when the only manly way to eat beef was in the form of a three-quarter pound steak and it involved a major change in the way many consumers thought about the product, but it ensured that beef remained an important part of the American diet.

"We worked closely with the American Heart Association throughout," says McDermott. "There was time when everyone in this business thought the Association was out to stop people eating meat, but attitudes have mellowed, and I think we both acknowledge now that fat, not meat, is the problem, and we are both looking for ways to enable people to eat a healthier meat diet. There are some public interest groups with whom we simply cannot work, the more extreme organizations, but mostly it's possible to find common ground."

Apple marketers have tried both these approaches, so far to a limited extent. Experts, particularly from the EPA, have been deployed to pronounce apples safe. Apple products produced without the use of alar have been labeled in super­markets and there has been an attempt to educate consumers about the real risks. So far it is not clear how effectively the message is getting through.

There can be no doubt that the apple industry is taking the NRDC seriously. The Washington State Apple Commission earmarked $3 million—half its annual advertising budget—to reassure con­sumers, and borrowed more than $650,000 to pay for Hill & Knowlton's public relations services. It has produced its own statistics, cited government statistics, commissioned independent organizations to produce yet more statistics. Unfortu­nately, as Pollock points out: "You can't always use statistics to counter what is basically an emotional argument."

And there is no doubt that this is an emotional issue. Even the NRDC has professed surprise at the extent of the reaction it provoked. And apple juice producers like Apple & Eve and Tree Top report receiving letters from customers saying they would not purchase company products until they were convinced apples were safe.

There are indications, however, that this time the National Resource Defense Council might have gone too far. Commentators in the national press have suggested that the NRDC prompted "fright wig" treatment of the subject of alar, and The Wall Street Journal, citing a joint statement by the EPA, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, said that: "When the day arrives that you need three federal agencies to say it's safe to eat apples, it's time for scientists, regulators and the press in this country to help people understand the difference between environmental health and environmental horror stories."

Even Consumer Reports, which has itself been criticized by public relations executives as a publicity-hungry sensation-seeking platform for extremists, added some moderate tones

to the debate when it said that yes, it was safe to feed apples to children. "Cities that rushed to pull apples out of school cafeterias overreacted to confusing news stories," said the magazine. "Although some apples may contain daminozide the latest animal tests found that the chemical may not be carcinogenic."

More than one public relations agency has seriously examined the possibility of creating an organization of scientists prepared to provide an objective counter­point to the hysteria created by some public interest groups, and to work closely on behalf of big business with those which appear to have legitimate grievances. Ketchum Public Relations has formed a Food Task Force with prominent scientists such as Dr Frank Dost, professor of agricultural chemistry at Oregon State University, and Dr Elizabeth Whelan, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health. And agencies representing the apple industry have considered respond­ing by creating an organization tentatively entitled SCARE (Scientists Converge Against Research Exaggeration).

But perhaps the greatest hope for those whose products could be the next target of such criticism comes from the historical perspective. The last time consumer groups achieved such prominence was in the late '70s when, after succeeding in getting the sugar substitute cyclamath banned by the FDA, attention was turned to saccharine. Suddenly, the public was faced with a situation in which no sugar substitute was deemed safe. For the first time there was a clear analysis of the risks and a groundswell of opinion that the risk from saccharine—as infinitesimal as that from apples—was acceptable.

Faced with the loss of a service or product it enjoys, the public will respond intelligently. It may be that the alar in apples issue is yet another watershed in the saccharine tradition.

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