Interview: Jeff Cronin;

CSPI director of communications

CSPI director of communications

Jeff Cronin is the director of communications at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (MSPI), a non-profit organization that constantly engages the food industry in highly charged debates.

It most recently tussled with the Salt Institute over what CSPI perceives to be the dangers of salt. In a e-mail interview with PRWeek.com, Cronin clarified CSPI's mission statement, discussed its relationship with the Bush administration, and talked about what the agency perceives to be the nation's largest food-based health crisis.

Q: The CSPI's mission statement is to be a "strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science." What exactly does this mean?

A: Well, that is kind of a mouthful. Keeping our overall message sharp is a challenge considering the variety of issues we have in our wheelhouse. I think when most people hear "CSPI" they think "Food Police." And while that's not exactly how we think of ourselves, we let that perception work for us not against us. I want people to know that yes, we're the group that publishes those studies about restaurant food. But we're also the group that put those "Nutrition Facts" labels on food packages, and we publish the largest-circulation health newsletter in North America.

Q: What do you feel is the most pressing issue that the group is currently tackling? And what success have you found in combating it?

A: Obesity, particularly in children, is a major and expensive public health problem. Diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke have a lot to do with diet. We've tried to turn up the heat on industry and get companies to change practices when it comes to dangerous food ingredients, like partially hydrogenated oils. We fought to put trans fats on food labels, which took ten years, but now many food companies are reformulating products with healthier oils. You'll see us spending a lot of energy on sodium in coming months. Salt has tended to get lost in the shuffle what with the focus on carbs, calories, and fats.

Q: How do you think the press has covered the obesity issues facing society?

A: There's been a tremendous volume of coverage no doubt. Much of it quite excellent. It would be nice to see fewer articles about gastric bypass surgeries and miracle drugs, and even more articles about diet and prevention of disease. It would be nice to see even more scrutiny of the marketing of junk food to kids, even though that hits home with big media conglomerates.

Q: How is the organization's relationship with the current government?

A: The Bush Administration isn't a big proponent of science-based policy or regulation, generally. But trans-fat labeling was finalized during this administration. Last year, President Bush signed an important law improving labeling of food allergens, which is something that had bipartisan support in Congress. And conservative Republicans are just as likely as liberal Democrats to get heart disease, so we'll do what we can. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to get junk food out of California schools. In fact, many state legislatures are introducing things like menu labeling laws, which would put calorie counts on fast-food menu boards.

Q: How do you, representing the organization, juggle communications on so many different flanks? Within the past two months, CSPI has issued releases on agricultural biotechnology, sugar substitutes, salt, COX-2 inhibitors, and Lester Crawford's nomination to head the FDA.

A: Well, we are fortunate to have a large stable of scientists, nutritionists, food-safety experts, and lawyers who have tremendous expertise in all of those areas. So if we didn't have that, no amount of communications cleverness could make up for it. I try my best to stay current on all of these fronts and figure out how to maximize our opportunities to advance these issues in the media.

Q: What led you to join the CSPI as director of communications?

A: I spent seven years at the Common Cause before coming to CSPI. My time there pretty much paralleled the fight over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, so it was a great opportunity to do media relations and communications in the crucible of a high-profile legislative fight. But I've always been interested in food issues and being a parent certainly amplifies those concerns for me. And I had always admired from afar the way CSPI earned media coverage. I think it was probably the edginess of CSPI's work on Olestra that first got my attention years ago.

Q: How many staff members do you have on the communications team? Do you ever use outside agencies?

A: I hope it seems like we have a bigger communications shop than we do. It's actually just two of us, but, like I said, we have a stable full of media-savvy experts who can do anything from Good Morning America to local talk radio on a moment's notice. It's fairly rare that we'll contract out for communications work, but occasionally we will for some advertising or some web work.

Q: Do you ever partner with other like-minded organizations? If so, how do you collaborate on communications?

A: With like-minded groups, we work both in formal coalitions and in looser ad-hoc coalitions. That can help broaden the appeal of a given message or get people to think about something in a different way.

Q: Would you describe your relationship with the food industry collaborative or combative?

A: We're often in an adversarial position with industry, but certainly there are occasions when we can find small patches of common ground. We're typically at odds with the sugar industry, but we shared a stage with them to criticize Splenda's deceptive marketing. We've said positive things whenever a restaurant chain or food processor does something that improves the public's health in some way. Usually when a big food company puts out a self-congratulatory press release about nutrition, there's less there than meets the eye.

Q: Do you find the media is generally receptive to covering your stances on various food issues? Do you feel the CSPI gets adequate coverage when it rejects a food industry-driven initiative?

A: Happily there does seem to be a big appetite for news about food out there. And we're well positioned to contribute to that, and we're a fairly visible group as a result. But I don't think we're ever entirely satisfied with media coverage of our issues. One thing in particular we've encouraged the media to do better is identify the funding sources or biases of the various experts quoted in the media. Too often someone quoted praising a drug has a stake in it. Sometimes a professor touting the health benefits of eating more of a given food will have had their research funded by that industry. Unfortunately, too much of what goes on in public relations is just designed to obscure, not illuminate.

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