Eight ways PRs can tackle the consumer health debate

The consumer health debate is growing in momentum as the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) runs a public consultation on how food and drink products should be advertised to children. In response, Good Relations suggests eight top tips for handling the debate in the media. 

On 13 May the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) launched its food and drink consultation with a look at introducing non-broadcast rules for how food and soft drink products are advertised to children.

As the body responsible for writing the UK Advertising Code, it says it launched the consultation in response to “wider societal concerns around childhood obesity”; the theme is high on the public and political agenda as the government continues to introduce initiatives such as the ‘sugar smart’ campaign and a sugar tax to tackle the problem.

In order to explore how brands should deal with media debates around nutrients, food and diets, Good Relations recently held a panel event with representatives from a range of major food brands and the media. James Hawkins, senior consultant, public affairs, at Good Relations uses the event highlights to inform his eight top tips on how to handle the debate.

James Hawkins Good Relations

James Hawkins

The eight key points PRs must consider in the food and drink debate:

  1. A brand cannot just think that product labelling is the end of its corporate responsibility. Above all, companies must have integrity which informs their activities – from a product reformulation strategy to promoting the physical well-being of their staff.
  2. Many brands will have “indulgent” products as part of their portfolios. These are part of the nutritional landscape and should not be hidden. However, you have to have sound messaging and remember it is not what you sell that necessarily counts, it is what you promote.
  3. Traditional media will typically provide a balanced story even if you don’t like the headline – although that “balance” may only come at the end of the article which may not be widely read. However, newspapers will often follow up health related news stories with features written by a qualified nutritionist or health writer. This provides an opportunity to explore the wider issues in a more depth and context.
  4. Brands should not be naïve about social media. On nutrition issues, social media is like the Wild West with digital commentators often driven by ego, who have very few qualifications, and can easily wreak havoc on brands.
  5. Brands should shout more about the changes they are making to their products, including in the production process (these are often hidden). A good news story is often one that is counter intuitive and after bashing brands for a long time, good news stories can get traction if they have an interesting angle.
  6. Reformulation is only successful if it is commercially successful; otherwise consumers shift to another “unhealthy” product. Brands must be clear that reformulation takes time (and not all their product range can be reformulated necessarily at the same time).
  7. Telling your story is important. Those engaged will listen, but it is important (in public policy terms) for those who switch off, that the process continues.
  8. Sensational media reporting often informs political debates. Politicians can’t regulate diet so will perhaps inevitably focus on diet components. Political engagement is as important as media engagement.
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