In-Depth: A practical guide to managing the communication around scientific research

Food brands are clamouring to get robust proof of their health claims. But how far can you go in promoting the endorsement in Europe? Suzy Bashford reports.

In-Depth: A practical guide to managing the communication around scientific research
In-Depth: A practical guide to managing the communication around scientific research

 

Having a credible health claim to shout about your product can do wonders for your brand image, not to mention your sales. But, get it wrong at your peril. The negative backlash can ruin your reputation, never mind your share price. You just have to look at Danone’s recent decision to withdraw its claims, which led to a drop in share price, as an example

Big changes to the approval process are on the horizon

The regulatory framework for getting health claims approved is undergoing major change. Specialist health communications professionals generally agree that the changes are for the better, as they will weed out the spurious claims, which confuse and mislead the consumer.  The aim is to standardise claims throughout Europe, meaning the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will become increasingly important over the next twelve months.

EFSA’s role is to approve any scientific claims made with regard to nutritional or health benefits in relation to food.  The communications challenge for manufacturers at the moment is that there is currently a lack of clear guidelines to submitting a claim and EFSA is grappling with a significant backlog of submissions.  However, EFSA has pledged to communicate better with the industry in future.

Persuading an authoritative body to approve your research

The best advice when dealing with EFSA, and indeed all authoritative bodies, is to present your brand as part of the solution. As Fiona Hall, European managing director, Chandler Chicco Companies, says:  'They want to improve the health of the nation. You’re a consumer brand looking to build or develop evidence that shows you can help. In my experience, if you’re open and honest with them and take the transparent approach, they are much more willing to enter into a discourse. But, if you’re trying to create something that isn’t there, they’ll quite rightly see you as a time-waster. Confusing and insincere claims are not going to help anyone.'

Hall adds that in presenting the evidence to the regulator, it is a good idea to pull the information together in a way that is clear and tells a 'meaningful story'.  Also, it is necessary, she says, to 'be realistic about your brand'. 'You might well love to have your brand aligned to a balanced diet, but is some cases this is just never going to happen,' she says.

Communicating the health benefit after approval

Unlike typical consumer campaigns, it’s crucial that you reach healthcare professionals with your message once you have gained the much sought after approval. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of being undermined by what health professionals say, should they be sceptical of your claim, not understand it or be misinformed about the evidence.

A common way to reach these key influencers is by getting your research published in a respected medical journal, such as the British Medical Journal or The Lancet. These journals are renowned for breaking cutting edge research and prompting widespread coverage in mainstream media too.

The power of case studies

With consumers today taking so much more interest in and responsibility for their own healthcare, case studies are a crucial part of the communications mix. As Simon Hackett, deputy managing director of health communications specialist Pegasus PR, explains:

'Society has changed. We don’t just listen to doctors and nurses anymore. We listen to people like pharmacists, forums or friends. That’s why online networks like Mumsnet are so powerful these days. Mums will make health decisions based on conversations here and with their friends, rather than going to see a GP now. As PR professionals, we have got to recognise the power of these communities and the value of demonstrating experiences of a product through case studies.'

Listen in

It’s clearly good PR practice to monitor conversations going on online about your product, principally to  understand the issues and perceptions around the product and its claims. 'But again you have to be realistic,' says Hackett. 'If you are operating in the weight loss arena, consumers are never going to get 100% of the audience happy with the product as it depends on so many other variables than just your product.'

Communicate the science clearly

With consumers so much more interested in managing their own health problems, they want to know much more about the detail of the science behind any product claims. Make it easy for them to get to the heart of the facts quickly.

For example, to raise awareness of cheese mimCol’s cholesterol lowering abilities, communications specialists Just:: Health PR developed a patient information booklet explaining all the research, distributing it through GP surgeries and pharmacies nationwide.

'It is crucial that the scientific benefits of a product are clearly communicated in a way that they can easily understand. That’s why we designed a patient leaflet explaining the message in straightforward language,' says Katy Sparks, senior consultant, Just:: Health PR.

More information:

For advice on claims made in broadcast advertising material, see http://www.asa.org.uk/

For advice on claims made in non-broadcast advertising material, see http://bcap.org.uk/

For EFSA, see http://www.efsa.europa.eu/

British Medical Journal http://www.bmj.com/

Mumsnet forums on healthcare: http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/138

The Lancet: http://www.thelancet.com/

For background on EFSA’s role: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/faqs/faqnutrition.htm

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