Fair-trade group gains PR boost from coffee conflict

OAKLAND, CA: Transfair USA enjoyed a major awareness boost last week following the introduction of a controversial ballot measure in Berkeley that would make it illegal to serve coffee that is not organic, shade-grown, or fair-trade. Transfair is the only fair-trade coffee-certifying organization in the US.

OAKLAND, CA: Transfair USA enjoyed a major awareness boost last week following the introduction of a controversial ballot measure in Berkeley that would make it illegal to serve coffee that is not organic, shade-grown, or fair-trade. Transfair is the only fair-trade coffee-certifying organization in the US.

Transfair PR manager Kenya Lewis, who has been in the job for only three weeks, has been handling all media requests.

While many critics are dubbing this an "only in Berkeley story, the controversy is a boon for Lewis, who has seen coverage of the issue spread far beyond the city limits.

"This is the largest volume of media attention we have seen in such a short period of time, said Lewis, who has helped shape coverage for CBS News, Fox News, The New York Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

Transfair, based in Oakland, does not take a position on the ballot measure, written by Rick Young, fresh out of UC Berkeley law school. "We provided (Young), as we have the media, with information. We exist to educate about fair-trade coffee so consumers have an ability to vote at point of purchase.

Any coffee drinker has the ability to have an impact on this global issue.

But the restrictions placed on consumers aren't in line with our goals."

But win or lose, the controversy around the ballot measure is a great result for Lewis, who conceded that the controversy is raising awareness of fair-trade coffee - and the related socioeconomic issues - to unprecedented levels.

Lewis said she is using the controversy to get her foot in the door to media outlets, and thus give her the opportunity to pitch the bigger story of fair-trade coffee. Transfair is also using the buzz as a springboard for upcoming promotions, including public service announcements with Martin Sheen. But it has been a struggle to present that story, as the media focus has remained predominantly fixed on the ballot measure.

While Transfair is happy with the volume of the debate, not everyone is happy with the controversy.

"This is about choice, said Mehdi Kashef, owner of Au Coquelet Cafe in Berkeley. "I have made organic coffee available for a long time. Some people ask for organic, some ask for regular. But (the ballot measure) forces my hand and the customer's hand. The marketplace should decide this."

Mike Ferguson, marketing communications director for the Specialty Coffee Association, said the association supports those like Kashef, who oppose the ballot measure.

"We hope to be a resource to those who oppose it locally. Consumers should be allowed to choose. But as a PR professional, I'm glad to see (the fair-trade issue) is getting attention, said Ferguson.

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