PROFILE: Advocate for a healthier US. An advocate of issues including women’s rights, this pro is waging a war for better nutrition in America. Steve Lilienthal has a healthy lunch with Colleen Dermody

At a Chinese restaurant in Washington’s DuPont Circle, Colleen Dermody is preparing to order from a menu packed with high-fat, salty dishes.

At a Chinese restaurant in Washington’s DuPont Circle, Colleen Dermody is preparing to order from a menu packed with high-fat, salty dishes.

At a Chinese restaurant in Washington’s DuPont Circle, Colleen

Dermody is preparing to order from a menu packed with high-fat, salty


But she instinctively turns to the menu’s more nutritious section and

orders chicken with asparagus spears.

As communications director for the Center for Science in the Public

Interest (CSPI), Dermody not only eats a healthy diet; she hopes the

whole country will follow suit. That’s what makes her and CSPI such a

good fit. A few years ago, CSPI made national headlines attacking the

nutritional value of Chinese food and movie popcorn. Dermody was not at

CSPI back then, but the organization’s concern for improving the

American diet helped to bring her there.

Dermody is representative of the new wave of PR pros who are putting

their talents to use on behalf of causes, not corporations. Those who

envision CSPI as being just a bunch of celery-chewing do-gooders should

look closer. It’s true that Dermody has managed to combine her interest

in women’s rights, animal rights, and now healthier diets into a PR


But she views herself to be as much a professional communicator as an


’There are a growing number of people in PR who view themselves as PR

pros who do advocacy work,’ she says. ’We want the public - our

constituents - to respect us and to think that our information is


From fledgling to fat-free

Organizations such as CSPI that place an emphasis on communications are

indeed succeeding. But at its start in 1971, CSPI was just a fledgling

public interest group whose principals were former associates of

consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

By the 1990s, hard work by CSPI co-founder and executive director, Dr.

Michael Jacobson, and his staff had helped persuade fast food chains to

stop using beef fat and to require nutritional labeling of processed


Such victories helped bring CSPI greater credibility; its Nutrition

Action Healthletter now has more than one million subscribers.

Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry, author of

The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, argues that

cause groups such as CSPI have managed to ’remake’ American liberalism

into a mainstream force. Their emphasis on quality of life issues recast

bread-and-butter liberalism to be relevant to a more affluent society.

Berry has noted that organizations such as CSPI start by publicizing

research while pushing for a legislative solution.

Dermody has been involved in causes long enough to understand how the

game is played. Her interest in politics was sparked as a college

student in Florida by the battle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

After working in broadcast journalism and different campaigns, she came

to Washington to work on behalf of women’s issues and feminism. Interest

in learning more about communications led her to a master’s degree in

public communication at American University.

One of her fellow classmates, Virginia Bueno, who is now a

communications strategy specialist with the Environmental Protection

Agency, recalls that when they first met as students, Dermody was a

resolute promoter of ’politically correct’ language. Bueno says, ’She

completely changed the way we spoke. She definitely changed our


Another AU classmate, Maury Tobin of Tobin Communications, adds that as

serious as Dermody is about her work and beliefs, she has a good sense

of humor.

Dermody coordinated PR for the April 1989 National March on Washington

that was sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW). ’I set

a goal to have coverage of that march in the top 50 circulating

newspapers with a photograph above the fold on the front page. I made it

in 48,’ she recalls.

She later worked for ex-NOW president Eleanor Smeal’s Feminist Majority

Foundation and then the Humane Society.

Rodney Ferguson of The Widmeyer-Baker Group in Washington had the Humane

Society as a client, and credits Dermody with ’tenaciousness in pursuing

opportunities. She really knows how to stand and deliver for her


She’s not one who just knows PR, but she also knows the issues behind

the PR.’

At the Humane Society, Dermody started to address the issue that she and

CSPI now view to be a critical health issue - the ’overuse’ of

agricultural antibiotics which is leading to a rise in

antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

To dramatize the issue, a CSPI news conference Dermody organized showed

over-the-counter bags of animal feed and antibiotics that ’you would

need a prescription for if they were for human use.’ This demonstration

caught the attention of the news cameras.

Sugar stunt

Dermody is also crusading for Americans to curb their intake of added

sugar. CSPI held a news conference last week to petition the Food and

Drug Administration to require disclosure of the amount of sugar


Bags of sugar weighing 110 pounds, which represents the annual amount

consumed by teenage boys, were stacked up. The U.S. Department of

Agriculture recommended amount is half the rate of current


Naturally, many in the food industry are not pleased with Dermody’s


Tim Willard, VP for communications at the National Food Processors

Association, says the consumer community has a role to play in ’raising

concerns’ and ’education.’ But he argues the US food supply ranks among

the ’safest in the world’ and therefore views CSPI’s work as often being

overly alarmist.

Dermody disagrees with that characterization. Speaking by car phone on

her way to work, she counters: ’American consumers need a group to watch

out for them. We’re happy to fulfill that role. We don’t expect big

business to sound the alarm on themselves.’ Soon she will be back at her

desk promoting the cause of better nutrition, and looking forward to

another healthy lunch.


Communications Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest

1983-89: Co-owner of printing firm

1989: Press Secretary, National Organization for Women

1990-1996: Director of Media Relations, Feminist Majority Foundation

1996: Communications Director, Barbara Hafer for State Treasurer


1997-98: Director of PR, Humane Society of the US

1998-present: Communications Director, CSPI.

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