Media Relations: RWJF makes clear case in defense of bans on smoking

While the dangers of second-hand smoke have been well-publicized for years, many in the hospitality industry have been able to stymie smoking bans in bars, restaurants, and casinos in many parts of the US by arguing that good ventilation provides adequate

While the dangers of second-hand smoke have been well-publicized for years, many in the hospitality industry have been able to stymie smoking bans in bars, restaurants, and casinos in many parts of the US by arguing that good ventilation provides adequate

So when researcher James Repace, working on a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Innovators Awards Program at Johns Hopkins University, finished a study comparing indoor air quality before and after a smoking ban, the foundation turned to M Booth & Associates to boost knowledge of the results beyond the scientific community.

Strategy

The first challenge for Dennis Tartaglia, M Booth SVP and healthcare media director, was to get the go-ahead for the campaign only two weeks before the study was to be published in mid-September.

"It was also being published in a journal that doesn't normally get media attention, The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine," he adds. "So while the results were significant, without a significant PR campaign, it would not get the coverage it deserved."

Because earlier research by Repace had been disputed by the tobacco industry, Tartaglia immediately sought out credible doctors, scientists, and researchers who weren't involved with the foundation to provide third-party endorsements.

Tartaglia then worked with the foundation's senior communications officer, Dwayne Proctor, to ensure that the study was presented in vivid language that the public could understand.

"The hospitality industry argues that ventilation really solves the problem," says Tartaglia. "But we were able to explain that even with ventilation, breathing in secondhand smoke at a bar or casino was like putting your nose near the exhaust pipe of a tractor trailer."

Tactics

In the week before the story was to be published, Tartaglia began reaching out to certain media.

"We knew that getting AP was the key," he says. "So we did a lot of research and identified a New Jersey-based AP reporter who would not only do a good story, but would also be able to deliver both local and national angles, since New Jersey has a large casino industry."

Tartaglia also reached out to other tobacco-control groups, such as The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, to get word of the study out.

Proctor says that while he consulted with Tartaglia and the others regularly, "I'm a firm believer in letting experts be experts, so they really took the lead throughout. But researchers are a different breed, so we did provide Repace and all researchers with media training [to help] make their research interpretable by everyday people."

Results

The effort resulted in stories in more than 500 media outlets across the US, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Osgood File on the CBS Radio Network.

More important, local advocates, public health officials, and hospitality workers across the country were able to capitalize on the media interest to push for more legislation. Thanks in part to this effort, seven of nine November 2004 smoke-free ballot initiatives passed. And in New Jersey, when sponsors introduced a smoke-free bill in the state Senate, they cited the study. The bill passed in the Senate and now awaits final passage in the state assembly.

Repace's study continued to be cited in smoking-related stories as recently as this spring.

Future

M Booth continues to work with the RWJF on the Innovators Program, as well as on a developing-leadership initiative as part of a contract that runs through next year.

PR team: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Innovators Awards Program (Baltimore) and M Booth & Associates (New York)

Campaign: Secondhand-Smoke Awareness

Time frame: September to October 2004

Budget: $30,000

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