Food Flacks Say Skip the Science

[Ed. Note: Required ID "This article originally appeared in the journal PR Watch. For more information read. Toxic Sludge Is Good For You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME."]"The need to effectively manage any and all communications issues is driven by one common reality: the bottom line," says PR executive Pat Farrell.Farrell currently guards the bottom line at Ralcorp Holdings, the human-feed company spinoff from Ralston Purina. His previously experience was managing the Nutrasweet image for chemical giant Monsanto. There was nothing artificially sweet, however, about his presentation at a PRSA conference workshop titled "Identifying trends and issues management in the food and beverage industry."Farrell was one of several panelists at the workshop, which the conference program billed as an opportunity to hear about "big-company experiences with consumers," "media relations during campaigns against various food items," "crises management planning," and "consumer advocacy groups." The moderator introduced Farrell as a "veteran of food tamperings, one employee shooting--that I know of, strikes, you name it."At the podium, Farrell corrected the record. It was "two fatal shootings in the workplace, not at the same time." He told the audience that he had "worked managing issues for 17 years"--issues like "restructuring, reengineering, downsizing, rightsizing, capital expansion, product improvement, technological advances, synergy, long-term plans, short-term outlook, new product introductions, cost-reduction initiatives, strategic alternatives and renewed focus." Said Farrell: "I've lived through all of these buzzwords and, more importantly, the real issues behind them."SICKENINGLY SWEETIn a truly Orwellian presentation, Farrell spoke of his time at Monsanto/Nutrasweet, where under his leadership the company developed what he termed "sweetspeak."Nutrasweet was having a public relations problem, he explained. "After many years of defending the ingredient using hard scientific facts" the company grew "frustrated by its inability to change the conversation."So Nutrasweet set out to discover "what's behind these emotional and seemingly illogical responses" to its chemical sugar substitute. "This was important to our company because we were seeking to grow our franchise outside the accepted context of diet," said Farrell. The "bottom line" was at stake, so Farrell hired a "psychological researcher" to help the company "address an issue that could potentially curtail further growth."According to Farrell, the researcher discovered "that in the minds of many consumers Nutrasweet equates to fake food." The company had for years described Nutrasweet as "an artificial sweetener." But artificial, said Farrell, "conjures up cancer, headaches, rat studies, laboratories, dueling scientists, allergies, epilepsy, you name it, none of which are very appetizing."The company also referred to Nutrasweet as a sugar substitute, but the psychological researcher discovered that "people don't like it when you claim to be like sugar" because "memories of sugar take them back to their childhood, a simpler time when there was less to worry about and sugar was a sweet treat, a reward. . . . Our own words were defining our product in a manner that created thoughts of being unnatural, unsafe, unsweet and led people to conclude that we believed Nutrasweet was better than the most beloved food product in history."The psychologist also helped the company understand that "the American public admires and takes great pride in discoveries and innovations gained through hard work."Armed with this knowledge, Nutrasweet created "sweetspeak." Said Farrell, "Words such as 'substitute,' 'artificial,' 'chemical,' 'laboratory,' 'scientist' were removed forever from our lexicon and replaced with words such as 'discovered,' 'choice,' 'variety,' 'unique,' 'different,' 'new taste.' "Using sweetspeak, Farrell gave an example of how Nutrasweet now responds to the question: How do you know aspartame is safe?The answer: "Aspartame was discovered nearly 30 years ago. Since that time, hundreds of people in our company and elsewhere around the world--people with families like yours and mine--have devoted themselves to making sure consumers can be confident of their choice when they choose the taste of Nutrasweet. People have looked at our ingredient in every which way possible and we encourage that because we want consumers to be comfortable when they choose Nutrasweet. That has been our commitment for nearly three decades, and it will always be our commitment. You can feel confident choosing products that contain our ingredient, but if you don't, you have other choices."Psychological research is also being deployed to help the biotechnology industry sell the public on the benefits of bioengineered foods. Once again, the bottom line is at stake as corporate America struggles to counteract consumer advocacy groups which, according to Farrell, are "willing to hold corporations hostage."As with Nutrasweet, Farrell acknowledges that corporations cannot win their PR war with scientific arguments in defense of bioengineering. "People will never be comfortable with the transplanting of genetic materials," Farrell said. However, the public can relate to the "specific food benefits" of food products that are currently in the bioengineering pipeline, such as tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, rice, potatoes, corn, bananas, cooking oil and wine."We know that food biotechnology, when presented in its full and proper context, will include a rich history of plant breeding and development that goes back over a century and is responsible for the dependable and abundant food supply we currently enjoy," says Farrell. "Food biotechnology is about benefiting the food supply. There is no negative, there is no dark side. . . . You can fight and lose the scientific debate or you can present the benefit to be gained by further advances in American agriculture, advances not unlike those that have been occurring for the past 100 years on American farms."COME OVER TO THE DARK SIDEFor panelist Jeff Prince, guarding the bottom line sometimes means that the public relations professional must both "sweetspeak" and carry a big stick. There comes a time, he said, when a PR pro must strike back.Prince, a veteran of the National Restaurant Association, is now a private industry consultant in Washington. As the panel moderator observed, Prince has spent many years "battling" the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).Prince began his talk with a four-minute video on CSPI "for those of you who have missed the megabeast of science hype." The video, consisting of news clips, chronicled CSPI's campaign to raise public awareness about the nutritional dark sides of many commonly-enjoyed restaurant meals. One clip, for example, was based on a CSPI study showing that a mushroom cheeseburger with fried onion rings like the ones at TGI Fridays contains about 1800 calories and the same amount of fat as five strips of bacon, four chocolate frosted donuts, three slices of pepperoni pizza, two banana splits, and a Big Mac."The restaurant industry needs to be concerned," said Prince, because eventually CSPI's nutritional information will lead to "a decline in consumer confidence, a growing sense of guilt about eating out." He explained that the National Restaurant Association has "developed three different themes" that are stressed to counteract the CSPI message.First and foremost, said Prince, the industry has stressed "variety and choice--arguing that studies show that only 31 percent of restaurant-goers are not concerned about nutrition when they eat out, and restaurants cater to customers by offering low fat items."The second thing the restaurants have pushed, of course, is the 'food police' line, and they push that as far as possible," Prince said. "The idea is simply that people . . . don't need a third party interfering and making those choices for them especially when this third party seems inhuman, inflexible, puritanical, rigid."The third tactic employed by the restaurant industry is to raise questions about CSPI's science, its accuracy and its procedures. So far this has been underutilized, Prince said, urging "a concerted effort to make the case against CSPI's science and to raise the whole question of how and when and where you report scientific studies."FREE ADVICE"If I were advising the restaurateurs today, I would tell them first to clean up their own house," said Prince. Then, "put out the money it will take to beat CSPI on its own ground which is science. I would then advise them to look for allies. It's not enough to fend off this attack or that allegation. A concerted effort has to be made to make the media understand how CSPI abuses science."Prince went on to detail what he sees as examples of CSPI scientific misdeeds, which he proposed making "the core of a case that we take to the media" in order to "raise the question of proper use of science and to begin to chip away, as you do that, at CPSI's credibility."Rather than attacking CSPI directly, however, Prince recommended that interested companies employ the common PR strategy of creating or funding a seemingly independent "third party" to do their dirty work for them. "If it is the National Restaurant Association and Proctor & Gamble [which markets the fat substitute Olestra] out there making the case, nobody is going to believe them. Their ox has been gored. . . . What I am talking about is doing briefings behind the scenes to educate the media, and you would have to distance it from interested companies. . . . and you would have to get the scientific community involved," said Prince."The companies and industries that wish to undermine [CSPI's] credibility can best do so working together to make a case that is partially removed from their own immediate interests," said Prince. "The whole project would, I think, require considerable scientific expertise, it would require considerable skill in media management and almost infinite tact, but through a concerted effort I think it could be done, because the press no longer wants to believe CSPI. They would like to find an excuse not to carry those stories, but we haven't given it to them yet. It may well be a job for some currently underfunded organization, or perhaps for some new organization, but it seems to me the food industry ought to get together and get this job done soon."Getting down to the nitty-gritty, Prince went on to detail what would be needed to get the job done: "We would need well written objective backgrounders. We would need expert testimony, perhaps even a panel. We would need to win the support of media critics such as Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Those writers, and often they don't have names, who criticize media performance, we'd need their support and I think we could get it."So far said Prince, the restaurant industry has kept on top of the situation. "The way we have been able to respond [to CSPI] is that we have inside information. You have to. Otherwise you can't respond."


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