Mary Altaffer / AP

The food movement should learn from the propaganda industry

Corporate America spends more on PR than lobbying. Perhaps health advocates should too

February 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

Earlier this month, the nation’s largest health charity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, announced a $500 million commitment over the next decade to curb childhood obesity, adding to its previous spending of the same amount since 2007.

A billion dollars over 18 years is a lot of money. But let’s place it in context: The soda lobby spent at least $100 million in five years on public relations alone, for advertising campaigns that thwart many of the policies the foundation supports.

While we know that industry vastly outspends nonprofit advocacy groups on lobbying, new data reveals that spending on public relations may be even more important.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) recently did a deep dive into how major industry trade groups spend their money on outside contracts. The results are eye-opening: Over five years, of a total $3.4 billion spent, more than $1.2 billion, or 37 percent, went toward advertising, public relations and marketing services — more than any other category. Just 20 percent of the total was spent on legal and lobbying efforts. Not surprisingly, the food and beverage lobbies are among the biggest participants in the PR game. In addition to the American Beverage Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association spends big on public relations consulting firms.

The good-food movement could take a page from these strategies. One of the biggest mistakes that public-health organizations and well-meaning politicians make in public policy efforts is assuming that being right is enough to advance their cause. They trot out quality data on fancy-looking fact sheets and line up their health experts but don’t bother to do even the most basic of public relations efforts. It’s high time they changed their strategy.

Swaying public opinion

A telling example of this shortcoming was the doomed policy effort in New York City to limit the size of soda retail sales to 16 ounces. While the controversial proposal was ultimately struck down in court, the idea was so ridiculed in the media that it never even had a chance to gain public acceptance.

From the city’s first announcement in 2012, the negative media reaction was fierce. The editorial board of The New York Times came out against it on the same day it was announced, not bothering to wait for any public debate. Perhaps the paper was influenced by the soda lobby, which took out a full-page ad in the Times the next day. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the public face of the campaign, became the butt of nanny jokes, which warned other mayors not to dare propose such a policy. While it’s true that the American Beverage Association spent a lot of money on a disinformation campaign that fueled the negative media coverage, this should have been anticipated and planned for, both by the city and by public health groups. How can any major city be the first in the nation to propose such an aggressive public health policy challenging a powerful industry and not prepare for the backlash?

Another policy public health groups have utterly failed to advance is stopping junk food marketing to children. The most embarrassing episode in recent years was when four federal agencies teamed up in 2011 to suggest improvements to the food industry’s voluntary standards. Even this tepid approach was shut down by lobbyists before it could see the light of day. Experienced advocacy leaders focused almost entirely on the technical details of the proposed nutrition standards but neglected to prepare for the political reaction.

Healthy food companies seeking to challenge Big Food should engage in strategic PR campaigns, both to defend against corporate bullying and proactively gain consumer acceptance.

The common thread from these two episodes is clear: a failure to properly lay the groundwork or “provide air cover,” as Larry Parnell, a professor of strategic public relations at George Washington University, described corporate spending on public relations in the CPI report. According to experts the CPI spoke to, PR strategy “is not designed to replace lobbying so much as it is to enhance it.”

In other words, successful public relations is a critical component of policy success, to ensure that by the time you approach a politician, the issue has already played out in your favor in the media and you have ensured that public opinion is on your side.

Sadly, in its announcement of additional spending on childhood obesity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gives no sign that it understands the need to counter the junk food and sugary beverage industry’s political power, whether through lobbying or public relations. In contrast, the focus areas — “Ensure that all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight” and “Make physical activity a part of the everyday experience for children and youth” — sound more milquetoast than ever. Eliminating the consumption of soda among children under 6 is on the foundation’s to-do list, but there is not one word in the announcement about how it plans to stop Big Soda from marketing to children. With such apolitical goals, the soda lobby won’t even have to waste its money on expensive PR campaigns anymore.

Outsmarting Big Food

Healthy food companies should also pay attention to the critical role that PR plays in gaining greater acceptance of their products, which are often unfamiliar to millions of consumers raised on the standard American diet.

November’s dust-up over the definition of mayonnaise demonstrated the power of public relations. As I covered in detail, the media backlash against the corporate giant Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, was all it took to get the company to drop its lawsuit against the San Francisco startup Hampton Creek over the latter’s plant-based Just Mayo product. Not one motion was filed in court; rather the entire episode played out in the media, mostly online. While small companies making healthier and more sustainable foods cannot match the conventional food industry’s PR budgets, the Hampton Creek example shows that they can still take advantage of the power of social media and growing consumer support.

Other technology-driven food companies seeking to challenge the meat, egg and dairy industries should especially gear up to engage in strategic PR campaigns, both to defend against similar corporate bullying and proactively gain consumer acceptance.

Another potential strategy for small food companies and nonprofit organizations is to work together to pool resources to engage in more strategic public relations to advance causes that promote public health and the environment, among other shared interests. While we’ve seen some attempts at such collaboration, for example, with some organic food companies funding GMO labeling efforts, we need much more.

The good-food movement can’t afford to allow those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo continue to control the public discourse. Advocates may not have as much money — and they certainly shouldn’t stoop to Big Food’s deceptive campaigning tactics — but they can still outsmart them by using available resources far more strategically.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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