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
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
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
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.
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
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.