New federal recommendations on nutrition have raised the stakes in the obesity/lifestyle arena. David Ward outlines the kinds of stories that will make the media take note
The new federal dietary guidelines triggered a flood of coverage when they were jointly released by the US departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health & Human Services in mid-January, primarily because they served as a harsh reality check for many.
In acknowledging the increasing number of overweight people in the US, the guidelines boosted the recommendation for fruits and vegetables from five servings daily to nine and cut the amount of saturated fat in a diet to less than 10% of total calories. If that's not stringent enough, the guidelines also recommend three servings of whole grains, three glasses of low-fat or fat-free milk, and 60 to 90 minutes of exercise daily.
The release of the 80-page report might not be enough to get some people off the couch and away from fast foods, but it could represent a real opportunity to get traditional healthcare and medical reporters to include more nutrition and exercise stories in their coverage.
The good news for PR firms representing food, health, and fitness clients is that the timing of the new recommendations could not have been better.
"Dietary guidelines have always gotten attention," notes Jean Ragalie, registered dietician and EVP of public affairs and communications for the National Dairy Council. "[With] the obesity issue and the way the media have covered that, everyone's now taking them a lot more seriously. I don't think previous ones got even half the coverage this one has."
"We've been out with editors since the guidelines came out, and they were really interested," adds Regina Ragone, formerly an editor at Prevention and now senior adviser, food and nutrition, for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. "They didn't know as much about the guidelines as you might think they would. They want more information."
While in many ways the guidelines are straightforward, the key might be to work with reporters to educate their audiences that this doesn't necessarily require an overnight change in lifestyle. "It's one thing to provide a list of requirements, but it's another to incorporate that into everyday living," says Barby Siegel, managing director and global consumer marketing practice head at Ogilvy. "I don't think the government thinks that consumers are going to immediately adopt every single point, so editors are going to be looking for guidance on how to take these guidelines into real life."
Ragalie adds that the focus of any media outreach shouldn't necessarily be on the problems of a bad diet, which is a story that's already been written. "The dietary guidelines should instead be positioning this as a solution that the media can talk about."
There have already been several stories detailing the behind-the-scenes lobbying that continues to take place in Washington by various associations looking to get their food products front and center in any government dietary guideline.
This battle might end up pitting one food category against another, but Ragalie suggests that the worst thing you can do is try to pitch this to health writers as a single food story. "Dairy was very prominent in the recommendations, but I don't think reporters will take our calls unless we present it as part of the whole picture," she says.
Ragalie also suggests lining up credible sources, including registered dieticians, across the country who can help reporters localize a national story. "Most reporters want to talk to the local experts who can give them the science behind the nutrition and also provide the information that translates the science into practical, dinner-table recommendations," she says.
If you feel you missed the best PR opportunity when the official guidelines were released, don't fret. Media interest in the guidelines will get another boost when the USDA releases its new diet chart some time this year.
The chart, designed to reflect the dietary guidelines, has traditionally been a pyramid, but there is speculation, recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, that the USDA might use a new design, such as an enhanced pyramid, plate, or other shape.
"The next big wave will come out with the new graphics, and food manufacturers will want to link into that to show where their products fit," says Ragone. "It's going to be a natural platform for educational programs aimed at both adults, as well as children."
The federal guidelines, even with a flashy graphic, won't be the silver bullet that ensures that media will remain interested in nutrition forever. But Jennifer Pfahler, SVP with Euro RSCG Magnet's healthcare practice, says that even after the report has disappeared from the news cycle, it should still serve as a good proof point for future stories, adding that its biggest benefit might be to nudge reporters to finally stop strictly discussing diet only in terms of weight loss. "It's so much more than losing weight," she says. "It's about leading a healthy lifestyle until you're old and gray."
Pfahler adds that, over the long term, it should also be an opportunity to pitch the importance of nutrition to a broader media base. "You need to talk to more than just the 35-plus demographic because the younger audience is also interested in living well," she says. "And you can also use the guidelines to look beyond health reporters to lifestyle writers, who are doing a lot more about nutrition."
Somewhat lost in all this focus on diet and food is the government's recommendation of 60 to 90 minutes of exercise daily. Jon Harris, VP of business development and communication for Bally Total Fitness, says the dietary guidelines provide another story to help the fitness industry get the word out on the importance of regular exercise.
Despite the tendency of reporters to describe the obesity problem as a crisis in the US, Harris cautions against taking an alarmist tone in any guideline-related PR pitch. "The scare tactics simply do not work," he says. "You must focus first on education and motivation, and then you can move on to activation."
Do prepare for the upcoming release of the new USDA food graphic, which will be a great opportunity to pitch food, nutrition, and fitness clients
Do line up experts, especially registered dieticians, who can not only explain the science behind the guidelines, but also translate it into practical suggestions
Do focus on the major trend. Instead of limiting your pitch to just one product or food category, show how that item fits in with an overall healthy lifestyle
Don't use scare tactics - describing the current obesity issue in apocalyptic terms in any pitch is bound to turn off both reporters and the public
Don't ignore food and lifestyle writers, who are also looking to leverage the guidelines to include more of a nutritional focus in their coverage
Don't assume that the story has to be about weight loss - look to pitch the overall health angle, which will enable you to target both men's and women's outlets