Innovative Science Drives Public Health Policy
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Innovative Science Drives Public Health Policy

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its Innovators Combating Substance Abuse awards program, headquartered at Johns Hopkins University, asked M Booth & Associates to gain media attention for a scientific paper by secondhand smoke researcher James Repace.

Paul Holmes

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its Innovators Combating Substance Abuse awards program, headquartered at Johns Hopkins University, asked M Booth & Associates to gain media attention for a scientific paper by secondhand smoke researcher James Repace, an Innovators Award recipient.

The study was the first to focus on changes in indoor air quality before and after a hospitality industry smoking ban (in Delaware). M Booth & Associates charge was to showcase Mr. Repace’s leading-edge research and gain visibility for an important public health issue: the impact of secondhand smoke on hospitality industry workers.

Despite the dangers of secondhand smoke, only a few states and cities have laws that protect workers and patrons from its dangers in restaurants, bars and casinos. Industry-funded groups around the country have sought to repeal existing laws using the argument that ventilation provides adequate protection, and many states and cities have accepted that argument – so getting out an important scientific paper on this topic was that much more important.

M Booth & Associates faced significant challenges in promoting this paper. M Booth & Associates were made aware of its scheduled publication less than two weeks before it was to be issued, and it was to be published in a small journal not normally covered by consumer press (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine). To complicate matters, two days before the stated embargo date the journal decided to publish the paper online without notifying either the author or us (we discovered the publication ourselves). Further, Booth knew well-funded tobacco industry groups would seek to discredit the study as “junk science,” as they had tried to do (unsuccessfully) with earlier research by Mr. Repace that challenged their economic interests.

Because of an extremely tight turn-around time, planning was compressed and intensive. Booth conducted in-depth research on media, to identify reporters most likely to cover the story in the desired manner. We looked at which independent scientists would be supportive of Mr. Repace’s findings, and reached out to these researchers about the pending publication, as we did with tobacco control groups.

Booth looked at earlier studies by Mr. Repace, and at how those studies were covered, including how industry groups responded. And we researched what was happening state-by-state with smokefree laws, in order to have this information available for reporters and to help us in targeting media outreach.

Booth’s objectives were to: raise awareness of this new science demonstrating the very real dangers of secondhand smoke and the lack of efficacy of ventilation systems; and provide new evidence that local advocates, policy-makers and hospitality workers could leverage to demonstrate the need to protect workers and the public. Booth further wanted to pre-empt anticipated industry efforts to discredit the research. Booth needed to reach a number of key audiences in order to achieve these objectives: national and regional media, the public health community around the U.S., hospitality industry workers, and legislators.

The strategy had five components: Booth determined that we needed to write the release and pitch the study in a very consumer-friendly way to gain maximum publicity and overcome the challenge of publication in a small medical journal. Booth focused on the study’s contrast between air quality in smoky bars and casinos with pollution on a busy interstate, at a tunnel tollbooth, and on diesel truck-choked inner city streets.

Booth decided that it could increase the study’s impact by getting it out to the public health advocacy community, and contacted the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other groups concerned about secondhand smoke that would provide both national and local comment on the significance of the study’s results. A wire story offered our best chance to make a major “splash” with the study, and we wanted to contact a reporter whose interest would go beyond a publication in an unfamiliar journal.

Booth decided to reach out to Linda Johnson, a healthcare reporter in the AP Trenton, NJ bureau, with a New Jersey angle: The state has one of the nation’s largest casino industries, and is also home to The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study’s funder. Booth focused on the soundness of the science, and ensured that tobacco industry charges of “junk science” would be minimized by having other credible independent researchers at the ready to comment on the study’s results. Booth targeted media in major markets that had legislative activity related to secondhand smoke, as well as in states with casino industries and tobacco states.

Booth embargoed the release and provided it to reporters three days in advance of the scheduled publication date. On discovery of the journal’s early online publication, the firm needed to lift the embargo – and recontacted reporters about the embargo lift. Booth also placed the news release on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s EurekAlert! embargoed science-news site.

The PR team determined that it would secure a wire service story to achieve widespread pickup internationally, and also targeted the most influential medical reporters at national and regional media. Coordinating with the Foundation, we provided journalists with referrals to leading researchers not involved in the study, provided them with information on smokefree states and cities nationwide, and referred them to the leading public health and advocacy groups.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation realized an extraordinary ROI from this public relations initiative: An important public health issue received a huge volume of coverage, much of it in-depth and in top-tier media; health advocates were able to leverage that coverage, and their comments were included in many stories; the coverage created a tremendous amount of “buzz,” leading to editorials and additional news stories for well over a month, citation of the study in newly introduced public health legislation (see 10/17/04 AP story)… and it helped leverage successful public accommodation smoking referenda in seven states (see “Policy Impact”); and The Foundation received worldwide visibility for its support of groundbreaking research.

Results include: Over 530,000,000 media impressions and more than 500 stories… and still counting with National/international reach. All Top 50 markets in U.S. – in print, online and broadcast media including, International Herald Tribune.

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