Public relations: Case for the defence

With the media eager to apportion blame for obesity and binge drinking, what can brands do to avoid being scapegoats?

Obese children, drunk teenagers, adults lying on sofas demolishing unhealthy snacks. This is the imagery that has been flashed regularly on TV screens and printed on newspaper and magazine pages for the past few years, as the debate about healthy eating and responsible drinking rumbles on.

As a result, FMCG brands have often been accused of lack of social responsibility and questioned repeatedly by the media about their products' ingredients.

So, how have they survived?

Responsibility for survival strategies in this media-feeding frenzy is often passed to the PR department. The more savvy set-ups understand that to be effective, their focus needs to be less on battling their way through allegations and more on using PR to be prepared: if a food brand is regarded as a treat, or has a higher level of fat than fruit and vegetables, the chances are it will get caught in the media crossfire.

The sophistication of PR techniques in crisis management means brands are well-placed to defend themselves. 'Clever companies have not been caught by surprise with issues such as irresponsible drinking,' says Stephen Doherty, managing director of corporate affairs at Cohn & Wolfe, whose clients include Diageo (incorporating Smirnoff and Baileys) and Starbucks.

'But if a brand seeks adulation for good practice at a time when obesity issues are raging through the media, it is also more likely to be attacked.

The brand should be regularly educating the media and consumer groups about its stance on these issues, rather than using them for self-promotion.'

Doherty adds that most responsible companies are taking steps to make their products healthier, so it makes sense for PR officers to ensure this story is told on a regular basis.

In the current environment of social awareness, FMCG companies are vulnerable targets. A journalist can choose one product, take it to the lab to measure its salt and fat content, and instantaneously it is front-page news. Brands must be particularly prepared if they have marketing activity directed toward children. 'It might sound simple, but the best PR technique is to be prepared for everything,' says Doherty.

One way PR can protect FMCG brands against accusations of lack of social responsibility is by involving a trusted third party - seeking independent endorsement of a product, for example. Kirsten Davies, associate director at Razor PR, whose clients have included Kraft, McDonald's and GlaxoSmithKline, and who now works with food companies that supply FMCG brands, says that if a product claims to be better for teeth than its rivals, it should seek endorsement from a dentist whose opinion will be more highly regarded than that of the company behind the brand.

'It is often helpful to present these issues as an industry-wide opportunity through bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation, which work to communicate the advances food companies have made in reviewing formulations,' she says. But she adds a note of caution: 'Journalists will dig behind endorsements and reveal if payments have been made, so ensure that the endorsement is 100% valid.'

Raising awareness

Food manufacturers also need to be aware that jumping on the latest health bandwagon is not always the best thing to do commercially. 'It's important to give consumers time to accept the latest wonder food,' says Davies.

'Often, product launches containing new ingredients need to be backed up by generic awareness campaigns, which is where PR can be very beneficial - particularly in the functional food and drinks sector.'

Coca-Cola GB director of public affairs and communications Tim Wilkinson argues that at its most basic, obesity is a question of calories in versus calories out and any organisation wanting to avoid being a media target needs to address both sides of the equation. 'That applies to government, special interest groups and FMCG companies,' he says.

'From our perspective, PR is not about handling an issue, nor is it about distancing a brand from allegations, as this suggests hiding. PR starts with business change and evolution to be part of the solution.'

Being prepared for scrutiny and educating consumers are strategies that clearly need to be in place. Many PR officers suggest running workshops with clients on crisis and media training as a further step. At Nestle UK, which owns popular confectionery and cereal brands such as Kit Kat, Aero, Cheerios and Shreddies, preparing statements and envisaging potential media Q&As are regular tasks for the press team.

The company also works with the Food and Drink Federation on any issues that arise. As the company and its brands operate internationally, care must be taken to ensure that when responding to any media criticism, a consistent global message is maintained.

'Our external PR agencies are also helpful in identifying issues we should be considering, up to 20 or 30 at a time, and once we have an issue to address, a statement is put in place and is fully discussed with the press office,' says David Hudson, Nestle's communications and corporate affairs director. He advises that once an issue is up and running, brands should be proactive. 'Attend party conferences, engage with MPs, consumers, opinion formers,' he says.

News relevance

Another proven technique is to tie in a brand's response to healthy eating debates with the news agenda. Shine Communications, which works on consumer accounts for Heinz, released information on the brand's lower levels of salt to tie in with the recent release of the Food Standards Agency's recommendations on the levels of salt in food (see box).

'If a journalist is going to write about an issue such as the FSA story, you want to be cited as a brand that is taking that issue seriously,' says Shine deputy managing director Erika Hendrick. 'When we work on campaigns for Heinz, we ensure they address any issues currently surrounding nutrition and health.'

Hendrick, whose clients also include Unilever-owned Wall's ice creams, believes FMCG brands should also keep abreast of the changing style of food pages in newspapers and magazines to maximise the PR opportunity.

'We advise clients to do "tried and tested" features, as that gives a third-party endorsement for the brand,' she says. 'But journalists have changed the way they write the food pages. Glossies and weeklies are very keen on the origin and source of the product and, as a result, we've had to think about the style of campaign we run.'

Encouraging responsibility

This approach can also help drinks companies in their quest to address the responsible drinking issue. Salt PR works for Heineken, including its Amstel and Bira Moretti brands.

It is currently handling a campaign that links drinking beer with eating a meal. 'If there is an element of education, PR is the best-placed marketing discipline to work on it,' says the agency's managing director, Andy Last. 'We are working with Italian chefs, helping pubs with their menus, running competitions to win trips to a cookery school in Tuscany, and have commissioned research into how the English are becoming more Italian.'

He also suggests PR be used to explain the story behind the brand. When Heineken was taken over by Interbrew in 2003, it let people know it was a premium lager by involving the brand in premium football sponsorship and moving it away from an association with pub happy hours. This has also had the benefit of raising its profile as a responsible brand.

There comes a point where the facts speak for themselves, and PR should never be used as whitewash, whether a brand is in a proactive or reactive situation. But what if a brand is already caught in the firing line? 'If a company has a defensible position, it is its right to defend it,' says Cohn & Wolfe's Doherty. 'If someone says something negative about your brand that's unfounded, be over it like a rash.'

Fraser Hardie, managing director at Blue Rubicon, which represents companies including Ribena owner GlaxoSmithKline, argues there are times when it is a no-win situation. 'Sometimes a brand is tried and convicted by the media before it has been able to speak. But if you understand the environment in which it may occur, scenario planning will have been key.'

The most potent message to FMCG brands is to be prepared. Issues such as obesity and binge drinking are unlikely to go away but if a brand has done its homework and focused on issue management, a crisis is more likely to be averted.


The Food Standards Agency launched a PR campaign last month to raise awareness of the recommended daily salt intake of no more than 6g a day.

Shine Communications spotted an opportunity to bring Heinz into the debate and educate the media about the work the company has done on reducing salt in its products. While salt levels in Heinz products already meet FSA targets and an on-pack flash draws attention to this, there was not a strong Heinz-owned consumer news hook with which to launch an individual campaign.

'We took a proactive and personal approach for communication by sending a fact file and mailer to the national media. This included an empty salt grinder with Beanz/Soup or Pasta branding in the top half and a message on work Heinz has done to reduce salt. We used the FSA campaign as a hook to educate on levels of salt in Heinz products,' says Shine Communications' deputy managing director, Erika Hendrick. 'We also created Heinz-based features using radio, where we would have greater control of messaging used to ensure positive coverage.' This included setting up radio interviews with nutritionist Dr Juliet Gray to talk about the importance of cutting down on salt intake, and answer questions on the negative impact of consuming too much salt. The features included tips on how to keep salt levels in check when buying food for a family - for example, how Heinz Baked Beans could form part of a balanced diet.

Results are still coming in, but the campaign has achieved positive messages in The Independent, The Observer and Financial Times, while 35 interviews have been set up with regional radio stations.


1. Take time out to do some long-range scenario planning - it helps to get ahead of the issues rather than always being on the defensive.

2. Ensure any claims can be thoroughly backed up - preferably with independent endorsement.

3. Work together, not in isolation if it is an industry-wide issue.

4. Actively involve suppliers in investigating opportunities for change - this affects the whole supply chain.

5. Make reference to consumer responsibility, but don't hide behind it - shared responsibility is more respectable than transferring the blame altogether.


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