The dangers of childhood lead poisoning are well publicized. But when most people think of lead sources, candy is likely to be the last - and most frightening - to come to mind.But that's exactly what Orange County Register reporter Jenifer McKim discovered in May 2002 while researching a story on safety hazards at local day-care centers. When McKim tracked down county reports of lead-poisoning cases, she found that a significant number originated from Mexican candy.
The newspaper launched what would become a two-year investigation, testing hundreds of candies, interviewing about 500 sources and combing through 6,000 pages of government documents.
They ultimately found 112 brands of candy, most made in Mexico, with dangerous levels of lead. They also discovered that state officials, while already aware of the lead content, had rarely alerted the public.
Eric Morgan, a PR specialist in the newspaper's internal communications department, notes that the marketing and communications teams sought to "inspire change and extend aware- ness of the series beyond the newspaper."
A significant part of the effort, therefore, revolved around media outreach to move the story beyond Orange County and into the national (and international) press, Morgan says.
But the staff also wanted to ensure that the message reached the local community.
"Especially in California, the assumption is that lead poisoning isn't a big deal," says McKim, who covers the children and families beat at The Register. "This was an area that children were being damaged - and nothing had been done about it."
In many ways, the articles themselves (which were also published in The Register's Spanish-language newspaper, the Excelsior) generated most of the initial momentum, especially once they made the AP wire.
To complement the news coverage, though, the marketing and communications teams decided that the best approach would be one that was highly visual. They created a bilingual poster that pictured candies containing the highest lead levels and distributed copies with the news articles.
"The poster also illustrated the source of lead in candies, how lead affects the body, what can be done, and where to find help in California," Morgan says.
The communications team also distributed a press release to members of the media.
"The distribution list included English- and Spanish-speaking broadcast media and prominent newspapers in Mexico," Morgan says. "[And] having the stories published in their entirety, in English and Spanish, on the web extended their life and made the series accessible to international audiences."
The campaign yielded media attention from as far away as the Pakistan Times and as far-reaching as CNN and The Washington Post - and public officials rushed to respond.
"These findings were surprising to everyone and were even instructive to the Food and Drug Administration," says McKim.
In a letter to The Register, Dr. Lester Crawford, acting commissioner at the FDA, noted that the agency is working to lower the maximum levels of lead in candy and has asked the US border patrol to stop certain types of Mexican candy from entering the country.
Locally, the California State Assembly passed a bill requiring more tests on candy and collaboration with the Mexican government to improve manufacturing standards. (The bill must now pass the state Senate.)
And two national environmental groups even expressed their intentions of filing suit in California.
The Register continues to fill requests for posters through a website and telephone number created for that purpose. To date, it has received more than 46,000 requests from schools, candy vendors, and the public, reports Morgan.
McKim notes that the newspaper is covering the status of the legislation to ensure that the issue remains a priority.
PR team: The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA)
Campaign: "Toxic Treats"
Time frame: April 2004 to present