Frank Coleman thought he was done for the day one recent Friday afternoon when he received some troubling news. A study was being released claiming that "children
consume 25% of the alcohol sold in America. So Coleman, VP of communications for the Distilled Spirits Council of America (DSC), the alcohol industry's trade group, went back to work.
Such a study could do irreparable harm to the alcohol industry. Numbers like that, custom-made for shrieking headlines, stick in the public's mind for years, making life hard for people like Coleman. But more to the point, the numbers just sounded wrong. Coleman and the DSC had been tracking this issue for years, and their numbers completely contradicted the findings.
The study, conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), was scheduled for release at a press conference that coming Tuesday. It was already Friday night, so Coleman didn't waste any time.
His first call was to the DSC's chief economist. They would get their hands on the raw data used in the study from the government agency that compiled it, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They would then re-run the numbers in hope of finding some miscalculation.
In the meantime, Coleman would round up industry PR heads and start working the media. Together, they would find out where the authors of the study would be featured in order to alert those outlets to any miscalculations the found. And just to be safe, Coleman started digging for dirt on the CASA.
By Monday evening, the DSC had found the mistake it was looking for: The number of 12- to 20-year-olds used in the study was vastly greater than that of the general population, and the CASA hadn't adjusted the data before coming up with its 25% statistic. In reality, that number was closer to 10%-15%.
By then, Coleman and his staff had learned which morning shows would be featuring CASA reps, and were busy arguing their case. They scheduled their own press conference in the room next door to the CASA's. They wrote up an aggressive press release denouncing the study, and even convinced the SAMHSA to do the same - a critical move, as it gave the effort a much-needed credibility boost.
To top it off, Coleman had found two other instances from the past 10 years when figures as respected as former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala had denounced the CASA for compiling reckless statistics. Naturally, he fed these to reporters as well.
But the press was slow to respond, and on Tuesday, the media devoured the 25% statistic. All the major networks carried the story, as did scores of print outlets.
By Tuesday afternoon, however, the DSC had convinced enough reporters - who began making enough noise - that the CASA was forced to issue a second release. This time, the organization said that 25% was only an estimate - not a hard number. The CASA's credibility was shot, and the media turned tail.
On the front page of that Thursday's New York Times was the headline "Disturbing finding on young drinkers proves to be wrong.
The Washington Post ran a scathing editorial denouncing the media's rush to hysteria.
The networks not only aired retractions, but spent the day debating the media's "disturbing
tendency to take numbers at face value. In the end, the coverage of the "scandal
outweighed the coverage of the study itself.
What could have been a disaster has become an example of how the alcohol industry can be used as an easy target to advance others' agendas. Expect the DSC to leverage that example to its advantage in future public policy debates.