PROFILE: Shaffer brings PR balance to the low-carb movement

Iris Shaffer, executive director of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance, is using her prior healthcare and PR experience to help establish the group as a key voice in the low-carb debate.

Iris Shaffer, executive director of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance, is using her prior healthcare and PR experience to help establish the group as a key voice in the low-carb debate.

"I felt like I was jumping off a cliff," recalls Iris Shaffer of her mindset in May 2003, when she ended her nearly 10-year stint at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in Chicago to become an independent practitioner. Shaffer, however, knew it was the right thing to do if she were to find balance between career and the demands of raising two kids. "If you practice the principles you believe in, good things will come to you," she says resolutely. And indeed they have. Today, she is executive director of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance (LCMA), a group of food processors and retailers she helped create in December. She sees the organization's main goal as being much like her own - finding balance. For the alliance, that balance applies to how Americans eat. "If we can position the low-carb phenomenon not as eliminating carbs, but as a moderate approach to eating less sugar and more whole foods, it just makes sense," explains Shaffer. "There's no way you can argue that." Using her PR skills, Shaffer is using that mantra to get the LCMA recognized as a reasonable voice in the low-carb movement. The group has more than 100 members, both food processors and retailers, and held its first conference in Chicago in April, attracting more than 200 attendees. Ken Shore, who's on the alliance's advisory board, says, "The LCMA was like a start-up company, and Iris has been there all the way. She has great vision and knowledge as to how these organizations are developed and managed." Shaffer feels her past PR jobs prepared her for this undertaking. Most of her career has been spent at associations, and while she hasn't worked for a food company, she has spent much time dealing with health issues. Her first association job in 1987 was as a public-affairs specialist with the Alliance of American Insurers, a trade association of property and casualty insurers. She next tried a brief stint of government service, working in Chicago for the Department of Education during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. But government work didn't challenge the high-energy Shaffer enough. So after another year of giving high-school students the "Just Say No To Drugs" speech, she joined The American Osteopathic Association, where she began learning about health issues. That led to a post at Blue Cross, a job she was attracted to by a newspaper want ad that mentioned job sharing just as her now 10-year-old child was born. Shaffer joined Blue Cross to work three days a week for about eight months. When her job mate left, Shaffer upped her time to four days a week and eventually five, working at home one day a week. When her second child, now 6, was born, she went to three and eventually worked her way back to a full week. Blue Cross, Shaffer says, "was wonderfully flexible. It's a real challenge to be a parent, dedicated to a job, and want to do well with both." Those who knew Shaffer during her Blue Cross years say she was doing more than achieving balance; she was spearheading outstanding PR efforts. "She knows how to be cutting edge," says Steve Feldman, an SVP with Powell Tate in Washington, DC. Feldman recalls how Shaffer foresaw a growing issue involving student athletes using performance-enhancing drugs in the late 1990s before it became a national news story and the Food and Drug Administration moved to ban one of those products, ephedra. Shaffer saw performance-enhancing drugs as an issue Blue Cross, an Olympic sponsor, should speak up about. She became executive director of the Blue Cross Healthy Competition Foundation, which worked to educate high-school students about the topic. Shaffer recruited former Olympians to speak on the issue, Feldman recalls, and Blue Cross commissioned studies to gauge how widespread usage of such substances was among teenagers. Her efforts generated more than 2 billion audience impressions for the campaign. Shaffer calls that project the one she's most proud of in her career. Getting in front of the performance-enhancing drug issue in 1998 was not something every Blue Cross company was anxious to do, Feldman recalls. "Some just didn't know how to handle something so controversial. Some didn't know where the issue was headed, but Iris did." Shaffer had to use her consensus-building skills to get the various independently operated Blue Cross companies around the country to support the project. And her trend-spotting ability serves Shaffer well in the low-carb arena, Feldman says. "To know what people are interested in is important when you're in PR," stresses Shaffer, who feels people will be interested in low-carb for years to come. "I believe the low-carb trend is not just another diet fad," she adds. "If manufacturers make more low-carb products, Americans can gain back the nutritional value of foods." Shaffer's media-relations skills now come into play as well. She estimates spending about 15% of her time dealing with the press as the group's chief media spokeswoman. "I could never do that had I not had the years as a spokesperson through PR work," Shaffer notes. News reports and the increasing number of food-industry organizations that are now attacking the low-carb movement don't faze Shaffer. "The media is about conflict and controversy, so of course there will be" stories about those opposing low-carb dieting, she says. And she readily admits the proliferation of low-carb products isn't helping. "There are bad products out there," she admits. "It goes for low-carb; it goes for everything." Once the FDA issues definitions for what can be called "low-carb" - a move that might come late this summer - Shaffer sees the debate moving to new, more clearly defined ground. "At that point, education will become extremely important to consumers," she predicts. And the low-carb alliance, with Shaffer at the helm, will be at the forefront of education efforts. Iris Shaffer December 2003-present Executive director, Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance June 2003-present Independent PR consultant March 1994-May 2003 Various posts, Blue Cross and Blue Shield November 1990-March 1994 PR manager, American Osteopathic Assoc. October 1988-October 1989 Public-affairs specialist, Dept. of Education June 1987-October 1988 Public-affairs specialist, Alliance of American Insurers January 1986-June 1987 Account coordinator, Ogilvy & Mather Direct

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