MEDIA ROUNDUP: Tobacco Industry - Age-old health debate cloudstobacco coverage

The public health battle over tobacco rages on, but it's been

harder to get press since the 1998 settlement. David Ward discovers that

local news outlets may offer the best opportunity.



When tobacco giant Philip Morris recently announced plans to change its

corporate name to the Altria Group, it was widely perceived as a PR move

aimed at distancing itself from its "cigarette maker" label.



The name change is also the latest twist in what has been the biggest

ongoing public health battle of the last 50 years. Indeed, while many

people assume the $246 billion settlement tobacco companies

reached with several states in 1998 was somehow a defining moment for

both sides, the debate over smoking rages on. Part of the coverage now

centers on whether tobacco companies have truly stopped marketing their

products to teens and young adults as they vowed to do. While there has

been progress made in driving down the number of teens who pick up

smoking, a Department of Health and Human Services study found that 55.7

million Americans aged 12 and up still used cigarettes in 2000.



PR professionals on both sides of the issue say that since 1998, it's

been harder to get journalists to cover the tobacco industry. "As a

public health story, tobacco has always been a harder sell with

reporters because, unlike drunk driving or gun violence, tobacco takes

many years to kill," says Kathryn Kahler Vose, SVP with Porter Novelli,

which represents the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation. "It takes

much longer for the effects of tobacco to be seen."



Compounding the perception that public interest in tobacco stories is

waning is that most media outlets don't have the resources to cover the

issue on a full-time basis. "There are a few reporters who make tobacco

issues their specialty," says Vince Willmore, communications director

for The Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Some of them cover tobacco as a

sub-beat - part of the health beat. But what we find is that tobacco is

an issue with more angles than most people realize, so we have to cover

a wide range of bases in terms of the reporters that we deal with," he

says.



In addition to the health coverage, there are also political, legal,

business, and agricultural reporters who write tobacco stories. There

are even travel and leisure journalists who cover the issue because of

the efforts to ban smoking in restaurants, theme parks, and other public

places.



Where PR butts in



How PR firms on both sides of the issue ultimately pitch media on

tobacco stories not only depends on which angle a reporter is coming

from, but also the journalist's familiarity with the history of the

tobacco debate.



"Sometimes, when someone is calling you for a quick quote, you need to

take a step back and say, 'Let me make sure you've got a full

understanding of what led us to this position,'" says Brendan McCormick,

manager of media relations for Philip Morris USA. "One example is that

when we get questions about our marketing practices, we make sure

reporters understand all the restrictions that are in place, and let

them know all the things that we do voluntarily as well."



These types of background briefings are not required with the reporters

who cover tobacco regularly. But Kahler Vose says PR professionals must

still take the time to understand where even veteran tobacco reporters

are coming from. "The most important thing is to develop those

relationships, and know what they're interested in so when you pitch a

story, you know what their needs are," she says.



The other strategy, especially from a tobacco company's viewpoint, is

not to downplay the issues when talking to reporters about smoking. "We

don't try to duck that fact that it's a controversial product," says

Mark Raper, CEO and president of Richmond-based Carter Ryley Thomas,

which represents Philip Morris USA in Virginia. "We're very open in all

our dealings with the media, and we try to be as responsive as we can."

Raper says that part of his job is also to highlight Philip Morris'

philanthropic efforts, as well as its role as a business leader in many

local communities.



The overall effort is designed to convey the image that the company is a

good, responsible corporate citizen.



Covering the smoking area



Of the journalists who cover tobacco regularly, Gordon Fairclough of The

Wall Street Journal is widely considered the most respected. But there

are other influential reporters on this beat, including Greg Winter of

The New York Times, The Washington Post's Marc Kaufman, the Los Angeles

Times' Henry Weinstein, and CNN's Christine Feig.



There are also local reporters in the tobacco-growing states, such as

Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The additional challenge faced

by John Blackwell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Joe Ward of the

Louisville's The Courier-Journal, and others, is to balance the ongoing

health and legal issues with the reality that tobacco companies are an

integral part of the social and economic fabric of their

communities.



Ironically, during the 1990s, when coverage of cigarettes as a public

health issue was soaring, another tobacco product, cigars, was enjoying

a renaissance. Magazines such as the glossy Cigar Aficionado and its

competitor Smoke celebrated cigars as symbols of the good life. But

these publications, while still in existence, have suffered recently, as

the cigar fad lost much of its momentum.



Given that tobacco is an issue unlikely to go away anytime soon,

McCormick of Philip Morris says part of his job is to make sure that

reporters aren't dealing with the perception of Big Tobacco formed 10

years ago. "People have a lot of strongly held opinions about our

product, about our business, and about our business practices, so what

we try to do is make sure that the opinions they form are based on what

we're doing now," he says.



But if you speak to a PR exec representing an anti-smoking group, the

tobacco industry may have changed some of its advertising and marketing

vehicles, but not its goal. Bob Sommer, executive vice president with

The MWW Group in New Jersey, says the tobacco industry needs to

continually find new users of its products, and the bulk of those new

users are going to be under age 28 when they pick up the habit.



Sommer, whose agency represents health organizations in Nebraska,

Illinois, Washington, Missouri, and other states, says the avalanche of

statistics and statements offered up by PR firms representing both sides

can often obscure the national debate on tobacco. But he argues that the

real opportunity lies in pitching almost "micro stories" to local news

outlets, such as efforts by an Illinois water park or a New Jersey

community to ban smoking.



"Local beat reporters are great, because it's not their job to focus on

bigger issues," he says. "For them, a smoking ban in their community is

a unique event. The reporters are fresher to the issue, and the stories

from our perspective tend to be better."



WHERE TO GO



NEWSPAPERS:



The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Los

Angeles Times; Richmond Times-Dispatch; The Courier-Journal (Louisville,

KY); Winston-Salem Journal (NC)



MAGAZINES:



Cigar Aficionado; Smoke; Newsweek; Time; Forbes; US News & World Report;

Business Week



TRADE PUBLICATIONS: AdWeek; Advertising Age; FDA Week; Roll Call;

Congress Daily; American Medical News; Legal Times



TV & RADIO: ABC's World News Tonight; CNN; National Public Radio.



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