Reputation Management: The fast-food fight

Faced with a new breed of health-aware consumers, fast-food firms must use PR to assure their future, finds Mark Johnson.

Fast food is bad for you. The self-evident force of that almost-Orwellian slogan has grown to haunt some of the modern world's biggest food manufacturers. The fat, sugar and salt content of our processed food has become a national obsession, and fast food is no longer a 'fun' option.

A recent attack on junk food was the cinema release of documentary Super Size Me. In the film, US film maker Morgan Spurlock embarks on a 30-day McDonald's-only diet in which he consumes the fast-food giant's burgers, fries and cola for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The result? The once-healthy film maker gains 25lbs and is urged by medical experts to stop the diet, with one doctor warning his liver is 'turning into pate'.

The film has upset McDonald's, the burger outlet that has weathered the brunt of the media attack on fast-food business during the obesity debate.

The company responded by releasing a statement that claimed Super Size Me was 'unrealistic' and buying ads in five British newspapers proclaiming that its food should be eaten as 'part of a balanced diet'.

But with two thirds of the English population classed as either overweight or obese - an explosion of more than 400 per cent in the past 25 years (costing us £3.3bn to £3.7bn a year) - in a House of Commons Health Committee report last year, the debate threatens to continue damaging the reputations of McDonald's, Burger King, KFC et al - not to mention the manufacturers that produce processed food and the supermarkets that sell it.

Unless, of course, they can find a way to emerge with their core product offering intact, without being associated with poor health.

The public reaction of most food brands to the media furore over obesity has been muted. With the exception of McDonald's, the industry appears almost to have stepped aside while the golden-arched behemoth absorbs the fallout.

This strategy has been adopted by most of the companies in the sector.

So sensitive is the issue that few food brands or agencies would talk to PRWeek 'because there are so many groups out there waiting to say "you didn't do that"', as one source puts it.

The low-key approach

In explaining its PR strategy, a spokesperson for KFC tells PRWeek: 'KFC has not sought to win PR points on this issue. Instead we have focused our energy internally, making changes and adjustments to the menu, looking at product reformulations and so forth. We have, therefore, not issued any media announcements relating to the debate.'

Perhaps the brand most similar to McDonald's from a consumer's perspective is Burger King. Despite the potential for being tarred with the same brush as McDonald's, Burger King has also taken a low-key approach to comms in respect of obesity. BK International senior comms director Kai Boschmann says: 'The strategy we follow is to understand and analyse regulatory guidelines, opinions, perceptions and expectations in the key BKI markets concerning healthy lifestyles, in view of drawing up BKI recommendations on changing the way we do business and communicate to key audiences.'

The company has paid particular attention to Government and public concerns about sugar and salt content in its food, stepping up its lobbying work and communicating primarily with the Food Standards Agency, which launched a £4m campaign this year to reduce salt intake, and health group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH).

Boschmann says: 'Our primary focus has been on continued product development and better nutrition information for customers, as well as regular stakeholder communications as part of our public affairs programme. On some major product launches, including our lighter adult and kids' options, our communications mix has included PR and has generated interest from the media.'

KFC, the purvey-or of fried-chicken-based meals, has also responded by adapting products, notably with the launch of a Chicken Salad option and, more recently, a Mini Fillet burger and rice dishes, while supplying nutritional information to customers on all of its products.

A KFC spokesman says: 'We stand by our actions, not by our words.'

From the perspective of the media, however, the fast-food industry has been slow off the mark in taking command of the obesity issue, allowing pressure groups to dominate the debate. Retail trade title The Grocer kicked off a campaign at the end of September, 'Junk The Spin', aimed at redressing the balance by putting the views of the food retail industry to the Government.

'Whatever PR strategies are in place, this industry (supermarkets and other food retailers) is constantly on the back foot on the issue of obesity. And it shouldn't be,' says The Grocer editor Julian Hunt.

'Inevitably, too much effort goes into focusing on reactive stuff and not shouting about what has been achieved in a positive sense. But, of course, that's a tough call because the mainstream media aren't interested in a story about the great achievements of Sainsbury's or Tesco in improving their range of products,' he adds.

Pressure groups, says Hunt, target large brand-name retailers 'vindictively', leaving them in a largely reactive mode, and even if food retailers and fast-food chains do find themselves wrongly accused, the reaction of the media is far less sensational and the original misinformation takes on a life of its own.

And the pressure groups do get things wrong sometimes. A good example is the recent claim by CASH that Sainsbury's own brand of 'Be good to yourself' cereal contained 1.84g of salt, making it one of 'the UK's saltiest foods'.

CASH later rescinded the allegation, claiming it had miscalculated figures, and a correction was printed, for example, in The Guardian on 28 September.

The only contribution Sainsbury's would make to this article was the following statement by a spokesperson: 'We work proactively from both a media and public affairs perspective to actively communicate to our stakeholders the positive steps we are taking to help our customers lead a healthier lifestyle.'

Consumer recognition

Burger King recently introduced in-store salting, where customers add as much salt as they like to their French fries. And children are now offered the opportunity to swap their fries for grapes or carrots.

But the PR strategies employed by the food industry, in part intended to safeguard their reputations, don't always reach the consumer. Hunt states a lot of frustration exists in the industry. 'A lot of what it does is not recognised by the public or Government,' he says.

By keeping the consumer informed about what is being done to tackle the obesity problem, the fast-food industry's core product offerings, and reputation as a result, will have a good chance of remaining intact.

BURGER KING'S SALT INITIATIVE

In September, a group of leading experts on salt and its effects on health - Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) - launched a direct attack on supermarkets and the levels of salt in their food.

Research, covering 3,000 foods from eight categories in 12 UK supermarkets, showed that if someone ate the most salty foods for each of their normal snacks and meals for a day, they would consume more than three times the recommended 6g of daily salt intake for an adult. By contrast, someone eating an almost identical day's food but choosing less-salty varieties would consume 4.5g of salt.

The study proved lower-salt variants are possible - one of the reasons why Burger King has been working with CASH and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), communicating the progress the company has made in reducing salt content since the beginning of the year.

Burger King has, for example, reduced salt content in its Chicken Bites by 50 per cent. The company also hopes to do the same for its buns, cheese and ketchup over the coming months and years.

As a result, Burger King was the only fast-food chain to be commended for its efforts in reducing salt content in its products by the FSA when the agency launched its salt awareness campaign in September.

The endorsement came about after continuous efforts by Burger King to improve the properties of its products, backed by an ongoing communications strategy. BK International senior communications director Kai Boschmann says: 'This is a step-by-step approach and, while it does take time, we have already made good progress.'

She adds that the company's communications strategy on all health issues is to keep stakeholders informed of Burger King's efforts.

'This is an ongoing debate and Burger King will keep pace with the evolving expectations of a new generation of commercially aware consumers who ask questions about the role of companies in society and who differentiate between competing companies by examining their actions, as well as their products and services,' she says.

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