The public health battle over tobacco rages on, but it's been
harder to get press since the 1998 settlement. David Ward discovers that
local news outlets may offer the best opportunity.
When tobacco giant Philip Morris recently announced plans to change its
corporate name to the Altria Group, it was widely perceived as a PR move
aimed at distancing itself from its "cigarette maker" label.
The name change is also the latest twist in what has been the biggest
ongoing public health battle of the last 50 years. Indeed, while many
people assume the $246 billion settlement tobacco companies
reached with several states in 1998 was somehow a defining moment for
both sides, the debate over smoking rages on. Part of the coverage now
centers on whether tobacco companies have truly stopped marketing their
products to teens and young adults as they vowed to do. While there has
been progress made in driving down the number of teens who pick up
smoking, a Department of Health and Human Services study found that 55.7
million Americans aged 12 and up still used cigarettes in 2000.
PR professionals on both sides of the issue say that since 1998, it's
been harder to get journalists to cover the tobacco industry. "As a
public health story, tobacco has always been a harder sell with
reporters because, unlike drunk driving or gun violence, tobacco takes
many years to kill," says Kathryn Kahler Vose, SVP with Porter Novelli,
which represents the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation. "It takes
much longer for the effects of tobacco to be seen."
Compounding the perception that public interest in tobacco stories is
waning is that most media outlets don't have the resources to cover the
issue on a full-time basis. "There are a few reporters who make tobacco
issues their specialty," says Vince Willmore, communications director
for The Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Some of them cover tobacco as a
sub-beat - part of the health beat. But what we find is that tobacco is
an issue with more angles than most people realize, so we have to cover
a wide range of bases in terms of the reporters that we deal with," he
In addition to the health coverage, there are also political, legal,
business, and agricultural reporters who write tobacco stories. There
are even travel and leisure journalists who cover the issue because of
the efforts to ban smoking in restaurants, theme parks, and other public
Where PR butts in
How PR firms on both sides of the issue ultimately pitch media on
tobacco stories not only depends on which angle a reporter is coming
from, but also the journalist's familiarity with the history of the
"Sometimes, when someone is calling you for a quick quote, you need to
take a step back and say, 'Let me make sure you've got a full
understanding of what led us to this position,'" says Brendan McCormick,
manager of media relations for Philip Morris USA. "One example is that
when we get questions about our marketing practices, we make sure
reporters understand all the restrictions that are in place, and let
them know all the things that we do voluntarily as well."
These types of background briefings are not required with the reporters
who cover tobacco regularly. But Kahler Vose says PR professionals must
still take the time to understand where even veteran tobacco reporters
are coming from. "The most important thing is to develop those
relationships, and know what they're interested in so when you pitch a
story, you know what their needs are," she says.
The other strategy, especially from a tobacco company's viewpoint, is
not to downplay the issues when talking to reporters about smoking. "We
don't try to duck that fact that it's a controversial product," says
Mark Raper, CEO and president of Richmond-based Carter Ryley Thomas,
which represents Philip Morris USA in Virginia. "We're very open in all
our dealings with the media, and we try to be as responsive as we can."
Raper says that part of his job is also to highlight Philip Morris'
philanthropic efforts, as well as its role as a business leader in many
The overall effort is designed to convey the image that the company is a
good, responsible corporate citizen.
Covering the smoking area
Of the journalists who cover tobacco regularly, Gordon Fairclough of The
Wall Street Journal is widely considered the most respected. But there
are other influential reporters on this beat, including Greg Winter of
The New York Times, The Washington Post's Marc Kaufman, the Los Angeles
Times' Henry Weinstein, and CNN's Christine Feig.
There are also local reporters in the tobacco-growing states, such as
Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The additional challenge faced
by John Blackwell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Joe Ward of the
Louisville's The Courier-Journal, and others, is to balance the ongoing
health and legal issues with the reality that tobacco companies are an
integral part of the social and economic fabric of their
Ironically, during the 1990s, when coverage of cigarettes as a public
health issue was soaring, another tobacco product, cigars, was enjoying
a renaissance. Magazines such as the glossy Cigar Aficionado and its
competitor Smoke celebrated cigars as symbols of the good life. But
these publications, while still in existence, have suffered recently, as
the cigar fad lost much of its momentum.
Given that tobacco is an issue unlikely to go away anytime soon,
McCormick of Philip Morris says part of his job is to make sure that
reporters aren't dealing with the perception of Big Tobacco formed 10
years ago. "People have a lot of strongly held opinions about our
product, about our business, and about our business practices, so what
we try to do is make sure that the opinions they form are based on what
we're doing now," he says.
But if you speak to a PR exec representing an anti-smoking group, the
tobacco industry may have changed some of its advertising and marketing
vehicles, but not its goal. Bob Sommer, executive vice president with
The MWW Group in New Jersey, says the tobacco industry needs to
continually find new users of its products, and the bulk of those new
users are going to be under age 28 when they pick up the habit.
Sommer, whose agency represents health organizations in Nebraska,
Illinois, Washington, Missouri, and other states, says the avalanche of
statistics and statements offered up by PR firms representing both sides
can often obscure the national debate on tobacco. But he argues that the
real opportunity lies in pitching almost "micro stories" to local news
outlets, such as efforts by an Illinois water park or a New Jersey
community to ban smoking.
"Local beat reporters are great, because it's not their job to focus on
bigger issues," he says. "For them, a smoking ban in their community is
a unique event. The reporters are fresher to the issue, and the stories
from our perspective tend to be better."
WHERE TO GO
The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Los
Angeles Times; Richmond Times-Dispatch; The Courier-Journal (Louisville,
KY); Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Cigar Aficionado; Smoke; Newsweek; Time; Forbes; US News & World Report;
TRADE PUBLICATIONS: AdWeek; Advertising Age; FDA Week; Roll Call;
Congress Daily; American Medical News; Legal Times
TV & RADIO: ABC's World News Tonight; CNN; National Public Radio.