MEDIA ROUNDUP: Health supplements are mixed bag

Vitamins and supplements get spotty coverage, as very few outlets are knowledgeable on the topic. So finding hard facts and in-the-know reporters is crucial.

Vitamins and supplements get spotty coverage, as very few outlets are knowledgeable on the topic. So finding hard facts and in-the-know reporters is crucial.

The health-supplement, mineral, and vitamin industry has grown far faster than the media's coverage of it. From the 1980s, when it was dominated by Birkenstock-wearing health-food-store owners, vitamins and supplements have grown into a multibillion-dollar business, triggering a flood of new companies, all with products claiming to make you faster, stronger, or smarter. Sorting through all these claims should be a full-time job, yet there is only a handful of dedicated reporters on the supplements beat, and most of them are at health and wellness magazines such as Prevention. The rest of the coverage is a mixed bag, with some of it handled by sports journalists as a sidebar to the steroids and THG stories, and the rest being done by health, beauty, and lifestyle reporters. Coverage created by controversy "Right now the coverage is all over the map," says Linda Bryer of Bryer Advertising & Public Relations, which has represented firms producing supplements, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and organics for the past 15 years. "However, the sports writers are usually the first to pick it up simply because of the plethora of sports enhancements that are out there and the controversy. The word 'ephedra' is now a really dirty word, and it didn't used to be. 'Creatine' is another." The ephedra-linked death earlier this year of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler is the latest in a series of stories about supplements that has caused many in the media to be more cautious about touting any health product to their audience. "It's gotten a bit tougher," says Michael Moore, senior account manager at Berkman Communications, which represents Life Force International. "Health supplements have gotten a black flag because they're part of the same group." Part of the problem is that many journalists, even health reporters, don't have the time or knowledge to really understand the category. As a result, they tend to lump what is an incredibly diverse variety of products into a handful of catchall categories. "There are so many misconceptions out there," says Porter Novelli account manager Max Martens, who represents Schiff-branded vitamins and supplements. "We see in stories that supplements 'aren't regulated,' and that's not true. Supplements are regulated - they're just regulated differently than drugs. But, unfortunately, some of the media coverage ends up feeding the perception that supplements are the wild, wild West, and people are gambling with their health." In fact, some supplement companies do make claims about products that simply aren't true. "It is an uphill battle due to the fact that there still are some charlatans out there who make outrageous claims, and due to the fact that there are not only so many choices, but conflicting stories, too," says Bryer. "The challenge is to keep up with the latest science, and then utilize that in PR pitches where appropriate." "There is a need to educate the media with supplements because there's no one body they can go to that's the equivalent of the [American Medical Association]," adds Sue Preziotti, who runs New York-based Sue Preziotti Public Relations. But some media outlets have taken the time to truly understand all the issues surrounding supplements and vitamins. "On the one end you've got Natural Health and Prevention, who are very knowledgeable and have been writing about this for years," says Preziotti, who represents Natrol, Nutrition 21, and OatVantage. "But, with the mainstream media, the knowledge varies from very little to a lot, depending on their focus." Stick with science Preziotti says it's important to have experts who can explain the science behind the supplement in ways the journalist can understand. Moore adds that many health reporters, especially those at newspapers and general-interest outlets, are more likely to do wrap-up trend stories than individual product reviews, so it helps to have a general theme in mind, along with a product sample. And while much of the focus is on print, Moore says, there are plenty of opportunities on radio and local TV stations, many of which are now responsible for four to five hours of their own news programming each day. "In most cases, these stations are looking for b-roll because they want to have something to work with," he adds. ----- Pitching... health supplements
  • Put the science first. Given some of the negative publicity surrounding supplements, reporters will be skeptical and will need verifiable studies before they can commit to writing a story.
  • Provide experts. Doctors are ideal, but other professionals, including pharmacists, can also offer commentary on both traditional and alternative cures to common ailments.
  • Pitch across the publication. Even if the sports pages aren't interested, the health or lifestyle pages may be.

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