CAMPAIGNS: Media Relations - ALA uses press to put heat on MPAA

Lighting up cigarettes on screen has been a controversial issue for years. From James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause to Sissy Spacek in In The Bedroom, smoking is a device that actors and directors have often used to convey characters' emotions. But not everyone is happy to see tobacco on celluloid - the American Lung Association (ALA) and other anti-smoking groups think the portrayals have a negative impact on kids.

Despite the best attempts of anti-smoking lobbyists, though, it's a topic that has only recently gained notice from mainstream media. Raising the profile of the issue is one of the core projects for the Sacramento-Emigrant Trails branch of the American Lung Association, which asked public affairs experts Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn (RS&E) for help.

Strategy

Recently, the organization decided it wanted to draw attention to a new study being published in the medical journal Tobacco Control, as well as highlight the call to have smoking scenes in films impact their ratings.

"When that study was released, we wanted to make a big splash with it," explains Gary Zavoral, senior account manager for RS&E. "At the same time, the American Lung Association in Sacramento decided to put a little bit of pressure on Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to include tobacco use in the ratings, much like alcohol use is."

With those goals in mind, Zavoral and his team timed the campaign to coincide with last year's Academy Awards, feeling that the media frenzy surrounding the Oscars was the best chance to reach national press with a related story. They also decided to do away with previous tactics that were more light-hearted, and focus on the issue as hard news.

"While gimmicks have done something to inform the public, they haven't done a lot in swaying the filmmakers or the stars, points out Zavoral.

"So (the ALA) decided to get a little bit tougher."

Tactics

"We were able to have two enticing hooks for the media, says Zavoral.

"Not only was there this new report, there was also a pretty good news angle with the call to action of trying to get the MPAA to look at tobacco use."

On March 12, only a few days before the Academy Awards ceremony, RS&E sent out an embargoed press release highlighting those hooks to national outlets. They also held a press conference on that Tuesday, which attracted local television and print outlets.

The New York Times, Time, and AP all picked up on the story, quoting Sacramento Lung Association sources.

But not every detail went smoothly. The project's chief spokesman was on vacation during the press push. That forced Zavoral and his team to get creative for media inquiries. They set the spokesman up with a satellite phone so he was able to do interviews, and brought the executive director of the American Lung Association up to speed on the project as a back-up spokesperson. They also used one of the organization's youth advisors to provide a younger viewpoint.

Results

The campaign received tremendous press coverage. Aside from The Times and AP, the effort also landed mentions on The View, CNN, the Today show, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Up-date, and Inside Edition, among other outlets. "We were able to successfully get our view out there," says a satisfied Zavoral.

However, the MPAA wasn't as impressed with the push as the media seemed to be. MPAA president Jack Valenti told The Times that it had no plans to consider tobacco in the ratings mix.

Future

Undeterred by Hollywood's cold shoulder, the ALA plans on teaming up with the American Cancer Association and the American Heart Association for a joint effort continuing the fight. Zavoral also says the organization plans on reaching out to Hollywood insiders - actors, directors, and prop masters - who could have a direct impact on the cause.

"We do have a lot of support from directors, including Rob Reiner, says Zavoral. And with the help of RS&E, they hope to expand that list.

Client: American Lung Association (Sacramento, CA)
PR Team: Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn (Sacramento, CA)
Campaign: Stop Smoking on Screen
Time Frame: February-March 2002
Budget: part of a year-long $39,000 contract

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