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Steering Public Perceptions

Albion Minerals®

Here in the Northwest, our families prepare for earthquakes. We know that we live in an area prone to plates shifting, so we live in a state of readiness. Schools teach children to duck under desks, protecting their heads; at home we keep emergency food, water and critical medical supplies close.

Yet across the supplement industry, our world is rocked not by the occasional earthquake, but rather by a slew of negative media. Every week it seems there’s some “anti-supplement” news, such as the trio of meta-analyses published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (November 2013), concluding that supplements—specifically multivitamins— did not prevent heart attacks (first and second) or Alzheimer’s. The lead author of one study went so far as to sneer: “Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”

In a December 16 editorial published in the same journal, a research team added further fuel to the fire: “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”

Immediately, both the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and Natural Products Association (NPA) countered with an equally strong statement— essentially, multivitamins are not supposed to “prevent” onset of clinical disease; they are intended to supplement diets to support overall healthy structure and function of various systems, organs and cells in the human body.

Make no mistake: this type of onslaught will continue. The next time it hits, what exactly can we do beyond feeling like victims yet again? Can we shift public perception back to at least neutral? How do we, as an industry stop the bleeding once it starts?

There are two critical strategies to take into account in handling these situations: reactive and proactive.Companies that want to weather the storms have strategies for both.

Reactive Strategies 

Occasionally, you may have to be reactive if something occurs and is widely reported. In order to corral and lessen any damage stemming from a media ambush, you should invest in proper PR counsel.

Negative media reports generally fall into two categories. The first is company- specific, as happens when the FDA issues a warning letter, a recall is initiated (by FDA or by the company) or a specific supplement is implicated in consumer illness or deaths. The second type is generally linked to a specific study published in a well-respected journal such as JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine. This study shows that a specific ingredient or vitamin doesn’t do something, or worse, that it actually has harmful effects.

Be honest and forthcoming with everyone. When faced with negative press, “the biggest mistake that companies can make is to run and hide,” said Sheldon Baker, senior partner with California-based BakerDillon Group. “They need to be visible—with vendors, customers and employees. Executives need to listen and respond To their community. We have seen companies fail to say what the problem is that prompted a recall, fail to say what they are doing to rectify it, fail to put anything into social media, and worse, fail to allow consumers a mechanism to ask questions and get appropriate answers. When they do that, they fail at their most important duty, which is taking care of their consumers.”

But it’s not just about the press releases or letters to customers. Gillian Christie, founder of Christie Communications in California, advised, “Ensure that your communications are accurate, authentic and consistent at all touch points from PR, advertising and marketing materials, to those representing your company at all levels. It is, at the heart, a decision to remain faithful to your customers, sharing the good news (and the bad) that differentiates leading, reputable brands from the brands that do as little as possible, skirting the edge of legality and giving us all a poor reputation.” 

Get the real story out. Sometimes you can overcome the negative press by working closely with the media, creating consistent outbound communications, advertising programs, as well as community- enhancement activities. Christie has utilized this strategy effectively in dealing with negative press. “The media were met with one-on-one, areas that needed to be improved were, and eventually continuous good media was picked up in multiple channels, resulting in numerous large contracts closed for the company, which re-invigorated employees and service providers.” 

In the case of the recent news about multivitamins, it’s a good time to remind your customers of the numerous studies that do show the positive effects and that illustrate that multivitamins perform as intended. It is not that Americans are underfed; it’s just that typical daily diets are sub-par with nutritional content, and multivitamins fill in the gaps. This simple logic is the absolute premise of the entire dietary supplement industry.

Proactive Strategies 

A proactive strategy demands that we prepare for any potential negative Press. Just like dealing with a natural disaster, how well we respond depends on how well we have prepared. Whether the news is in regard to the publication of a scientific study or whether we are responding to an unwelcome FDA spotlight, the basics remain the same. A simple alliterative mantra describes the proactive strategy: prepare, practice, perform. Solid preparation involves a number of factors.

Make sure your house is in order and act responsibly. Spend time and budget against ensuring that cGMPs are being followed throughout the manufacturing process. Thoroughly research your vendors to ensure they are reliable and ethical, not just inexpensive. Invest in full regulatory review before making claims, either on the package or digitally—be it on your website(s), Facebook, Twitter, etc. 

If you are holding your staff to high standards, as well as ensuring that your raw materials are safe and effective, and that illegal claims are not being made, there is little likelihood that your company will fall under FDA scrutiny. However, even the best supplement marketers get into tough spots when raw materials turn out to be tainted, as we saw in 2013 with the recalls of dietary supplements that contained enzymes tainted with antibiotics. Antibiotics are simply not a standard contaminant for which companies routinely test.

Get basic media training. Whether you choose to have an in-house expert or hire an agency, it is wise for executives to understand the basics of PR and communications before entrusting others to represent your company, products and corporate communications, according to Christie. There are many PR firms that offer this training to clients. In addition, trade associations like CRN and NPA offer training sessions at industry events.

Develop a public relations and communications plan before you need it. Figure out who the key contact will be for communicating to the press, and ensure everyone knows that this individual is the only person authorized to speak to media on behalf of the company and its products. Enormous amounts of damage have been done when (usually) well-meaning employees answer questions for the media without proper training.

Another solid tactic is to set up a board of advisors with medical researchers who can review clinical studies and help determine whether the headlines accurately describe the study, and can help your press relations expert to carefully craft press releases, letters to customers and retailers, and op-ed articles to leading journals. In crisis communication, moving quickly but effectively is key, according to Judy Blatman, CRN’s senior vice president communications. Swift response time is critical due to the high velocity of news turnover and consumption; stories get old more quickly than ever, and without immediate response, the initial perception becomes more cemented and ingrained.

Consider joining a trade association for support. We are fortunate to have a number of highly regarded associations including CRN, NPA, the American Botanical Council (ABC) and the Global Organization of EPA & DHA (GOED). One of the services that CRN offers is a way to respond to the press without having your brand or company associated with the press release. “We get copies of scientific articles ahead of publication, and so we are able to develop and disseminate industry responses very quickly. We prepare our members so that they, in turn, are prepared and able to respond quickly to their customers and to the community,” said Blatman, offering the example of the vitamin E crisis. “[It] caught the entire industry by surprise. We were able to quickly raise funds, formed a working group and, through diligent work with the scientific community and the press, were able to discredit the meta-analysis. We conducted market research before and after, and saw that we were clearly able to stop the damage from becoming worse.” 

Become a Revered Leader 

It’s going beyond merely being proactive in order to be perceived by the media as an industry leader. Ever wonder why some supplement CEOs or “personalities” are always being asked their opinions on any of the latest News? It’s because of their strategy of aggressively courting the press through competent consumer media counsel/PR.

Real industry leaders don’t wait for trade associations to do all the heavy lifting. Develop an active PR strategy that includes getting health information out to retailers and consumers on a regular basis, not just when a crisis hits. For example, the websites for Life Extension and Pharmavite have an extensive education section, which has enabled them to develop trust from both consumers and retailers.

If the press covers your category, get involved—as a leader. Whether you are a raw material supplier or finished brand, surround yourself with a board of advisors or partners that include medical researchers and experts who can assist in vetting ingredients, combing through new research and compiling appropriate responses. If a scientific journal publishes an article that your researchers think is unbalanced or done in a way that makes the conclusions misleading, step up and take a stand. Blatman recommends that companies get more involved in conducting well-respected clinical trials so that when the results are published, there are no questions about “flawed methodology” or inappropriate test subjects.

Consumers rely heavily on their chosen media to make their decisions. When negative news hits, ensure your company is fully prepared if a reaction is warranted. Additionally, invest in consumer media counsel to be proactive by disseminating well-crafted messaging that speaks to your core brand and philosophies. This builds trust and loyalty as well as credibility. A bonus is that the media itself will view you favorably and consider you to be a valued dietary supplement leader. So when the next quake hits, you’re not only safe, you are providing your fair share of safe harbor for the industry at large.

And that’s how leaders lead perception!


ABC, www.herbalgram.org

BakerDillon Group, (559) 325-7191

Christie Communications, (805) 969-3744

CRN, www.crnusa.org

GOED, www.goedomega3.com

NPA, www.npainfo.org

For more than 25 years, Beverly Emerson has been helping leaders of food and nutrition companies achieve significant growth through successful new product innovation. An accomplished CPG marketer and R&D executive, Emerson integrates consumer insights with technical expertise, creating products that make a difference—to both consumers and the bottom line. She can be reached at bev@olivetree-pd.com or www.olivetree-pd.com.

Albion Minerals®