As America's waistline expands, the diet and nutrition beat is growing along with it. And because weight loss is now seen as a health issue, medical credibility is what sells the story. David Ward reports.
After years of being relegated to women's magazines and fitness and specialty outlets, dieting and weight loss has suddenly burst into national media consciousness with a spate of coverage that combines alarmist stories on America's growing obesity crisis with practical how-to pieces on how to lose weight and keep it off.
The CBS Evening News recently did a three-part series on America's battle of the bulge, and followed it up with another story weeks later on how biotech companies are rushing to develop pills that shed weight and build muscle. People magazine recently did a cover story highlighting shape-up tips of the stars, while glamorous outlet Allure did a piece reporting that the writers and producers of the trendy TV show Sex and the City are now attending WeightWatchers meetings.
"It's one of the hottest categories right now in terms of coverage from all standpoints - broadcast, print, radio, and the internet, says Mark Beal, EVP with Alan Taylor Communications, which represents PacificHealth Laboratories' Sitietrol product.
Surprisingly, we may have the government - along with a host of private health groups - to thank for putting weight and diet in the forefront of many Americans' minds. Over the past decade, the US Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations have been issuing a series of reports bemoaning the increasing obesity levels across the country, especially among children. These reports and studies, which seem to come on at least a monthly basis, all deliver different angles of the same message: America's obsession with calorie-laden food, along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, is not only making it harder for many people to fit into their clothes, it's increasing the risk of a number of physical problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
"It's no longer a vanity issue, notes Linda Webb Carilli, GM of publicity at WeightWatchers International. "It's a health issue."
The general-interest press has been covering these reports regularly, but over the past few years, many have augmented their coverage of obesity as a health crisis, with practical advice on how to shed the extra pounds.
In many ways, it's a daunting task, for there are hundreds of products and services on the market, all of which promise to be the Holy Grail for weight loss.
Medical facts matter most
The biggest change in diet journalism and coverage has been an increased insistence by many health and diet reporters that diets and weight-loss strategies need to be on sound medical footing. "Four or five years ago, you could write a diet book and maybe get coverage, says Suzi Prokell of Dallas-based Prokell Publicity, who has represented both diet-book authors as well as products such as the somewhat controversial Meridia pill. "Now most only take new diets and strategies from registered dieticians, physicians, or nutritionists. Everybody wants credentials."
Beal agrees: "There are probably a lot of diet products on the market now that get no coverage at all because there's no scientific studies or clinical tests behind them. These days, the media isn't looking to cover a fly-by-night product."
Prokell notes that she's recently been coming across journalists whose sole beat is diet and weight loss. But for the most part, diet issues end up being covered by a variety of reporters, ranging from fashion and lifestyle to health and food. Among the most respected writers covering dieting as either a health or fitness issue are Nanci Hellmich of USA Today, Prevention's Holly McCord, Amanda Ursell, nutrition editor for Men's Health, and Fitness magazine diet editor Leah McLaughlin.
Stacey Bender, founder of the New Jersey-based Bender-Hammerling Group, adds that top food writers such as Joan Brunskill of the Associated Press and seasoned food critics Bonnie Tandy Leblang and Carolyn Wyman have been entering the weight-loss arena by increasingly emphasizing low-calorie recipes.
With weight loss such a hot topic, the real challenge facing many PR pros representing diet companies is which outlets to target. Suzanne Finne, VP with LA-based The Londre Company (which represents Dole package salads and the salt alternative Mrs. Dash seasoning), says even lifestyle outlets such as Midwest Living and Southern Progress are delving into weight-loss issues, primarily by working with their test kitchens to develop healthy alternatives to traditional recipes. "I always try to contact the people who are in the test kitchen and develop a direct relationship, she recommends.
"It's like starting the 100-yard dash on the 50-yard line."
Radio and TV are ideal
Both radio (with the growing number of regional and national health-themed talk shows) and TV (with its host of morning news and lifestyle programs) are ideal outlets for diet-themed segments, especially if you can deliver a well-respected medical professional or high-profile celebrity as your product spokesman. WeightWatchers' Carilli says her company spokesperson, former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, continues to be a highly sought-after TV guest, adding that her public appearances for the company in smaller markets are often covered as hard news by local print and broadcast outlets.
Carilli works with agency Rubenstein Associates, and says while the firm doesn't necessarily issue a flurry of traditional press releases, "we're always making sure that we continually fill the pipeline with either reports or public appearances by WeightWatchers ambassadors.
One example of that is the issue of childhood obesity. While Weight-Watchers has an age requirement, the company addressed the issue of childhood obesity last year with the well-covered "Getting Kids to Eat Well & Be Active Guide. The report emphasized how children learn from their parents, and that the key to ensuring that kids don't overeat is to set an example at the dinner table.
Weight loss tends to be a year-round battle, but Euro RSCG Middleberg VP Jason Schlossberg, who represents WeightWatchers.com, says there are three key times when the media is most receptive to diet-themed stories: January, when consumers are resolving to lose weight; spring, as many people get ready for bathing-suit season; and the fall, when the beginning of the school year triggers many to go on self-improvement programs.
If there's one media segment where diet and weight-loss stories remain a tough sell, it's the traditional men's outlets, although even that is slowly changing. Prokell notes that Men's Health and Men's Fitness, as well as bodybuilding-themed Flex, now all have reporters who specialize in nutrition and diet. But for some reason, many men's outlets still focus more on exercise than diet as the key to getting and staying in shape.
There's also the question of how they will treat a diet story. "You can have some success with men's outlets, but your approach has to be a little different, notes Schlossberg. "The big issue we come against with magazines like Details is that even if they seem interested, there's always going to be this irreverent tone to it."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: USA Today; The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; Los Angeles Times; regional and urban dailies and weeklies
Magazines: Men's Health; Better Nutrition and Fitness; Flex; People; Prevention; WeightWatchers; Shape; Fitness; Bride; Bridal Guide; Modern Bride; Rosie; Oprah; Men's Fitness; McCall's; Redbook; Good Housekeeping; Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; Cosmopolitan
TV & Radio: The Rosie O'Donnell Show; Oprah; The View; Today; Lifetime TV; Oxygen; NPR; CNN; local morning and evening news outlets and lifestyle shows
Websites: weightwatchers.com; fitness.com; prevention.com; menshealth.com.