Americans want to have their comfort cake, eat it, and then sue the baker for making them obese. John N. Frank reports on the challenges facing food PR.War in Iraq and a troubled economy at home haven't been enough to derail food-industry PR efforts this year. In the first quarter, the looming conflict in the Middle East caused some foodies to postpone events or promotional tours that were geared toward TV exposure, as TV news operations were too focused on the war to pay much attention. "Even two weeks before the war, those media outlets were saying, 'Don't bother,'" recalls Grace Leong, president of Hunter Public Relations in New York. Nevertheless, local media and food reporters continued to respond to pitches. Now, with the war all but over, even TV has become more amenable to food pitches. And food and beverage companies have been more than happy to seek out coverage. "We'll be back to normal soon," says Steve Mura, manager of national consumer promotions with the Sara Lee Bakery Group. After something of a slowdown in recent years, new-product introductions for food and beverages has picked up again. Granted, companies are trying to watch their budgets and squeeze more results out of every PR dollar used for such intros, but that hasn't meant less activity. General Mills, for example, is spending less on PR this year than last, and is taking more projects in-house, according to public relations director Kim Olson. But the cereal and baked-goods giant has 260 PR programs underway this year, compared with 240 last year - so overall activity is up. The company hit its annual goal of capturing 2.3 billion media impressions two months ahead of the end of its fiscal year in June, Olson says. Mott's, a division of Cadbury Schweppes, will add new products or line extensions to 14 of its brands this year, says Chris Curran, manager of corporate communications. "In order to stay top of mind for consumers or retail customers, innovation is obviously key," Curran says in explaining why the new-product pipeline is full this year. Appealing to the comfort trend As they roll out new products, food and beverage companies are using PR to appeal to the comfort-food trend that began after September 11. "Comfort food is very much alive and well," says Jennifer English, founder of The Food & Wine Radio Network. "There is a lot of contextual pitching, talking about how to stay stress-free, or deal with stress" through foods and beverages, she notes of PR pitches she's seeing. English has also noticed food companies being more frugal and targeted in their use of PR this year. "It feels like people are trying to be smart with their money," she says. "I feel that people are cutting back on how much they're sending out." However, English notes that free samples and media kit add-ons like music CDs are being used more judiciously this year. Some communications professionals say the comfort trend has progressed from merely comfort offerings - meatloaf and mashed-potato-like dishes - to foods that foster family gatherings and a sense of security. Call them "life goes on" offerings. Food and beverage PR messages are telling consumers it's okay to entertain and gather with family and friends - even if it's at home, and not at a restaurant or fancy eatery. "It isn't so much about comfort foods as it is to bring families back to the table," says General Mills' Olson. Brands are promoting their emotional equity, says Jacqueline Long, a VP with Magnet Communications. "Instead of focusing on the brand, look at the emotional equity the brand has," she says. "It's comfortable - maybe it recalls a safer time when you were a kid." For example, Magnet is working on 100th anniversary PR efforts for Luzianne tea. Rather than talk about the tea, the agency is focusing on the ties the brand has with local communities, as well as the role of tea in society. "We're looking more from a community perspective," Long explains. Similarly, for its Country Crock spread, Unilever Bestfoods decided to introduce a new mascot, Crocky, and use a tie-in with minor-league baseball in a new campaign this year. "Baseball is really a symbol of America," says Renee Yosco, SVP and director of marketing communications at Hill & Knowlton, which is working on the campaign. Meanwhile, Sara Lee rolled out old-fashioned bread carts to focus media and consumer attention on its new breads, says Mura. Breads with the Sara Lee brand are relatively new, but the company has been amazed at the emotional connection the Sara Lee name evokes in consumers. "For us, what seems to be working is banking on that icon feeling for Sara Lee," Mura says. "A lot of people, from when they were growing up, have a positive image of Sara Lee the brand." Sara Lee Breads has been playing on that positive feeling by getting involved in local community activities across the country. In some markets, it's teamed up with local sports stars' wives to work with charities like Second Harvest. "People have an affinity for their local sports heroes," Mura explains. Biting the hand that feeds While they pitch comfort and security, food companies are also keeping a wary eye on a growing and well-documented concern: the issue of obesity and the poor eating habits of many Americans. Some companies fear they will soon find themselves in the position the big tobacco companies are in - being sued by people claiming their products are harmful. A recent lawsuit of that ilk against McDonald's became the first to reach a US courtroom. Although the judge ultimately dismissed the suit, it grabbed the attention of both the food industry and the public. "Obesity is the headline in food today, and every food company is saying, 'Keep that in mind.' Most of the companies are on the defensive right now," says Leong. Mary Christ-Erwin, corporate food practice leader at Porter Novelli, says she's seeing 30 to 40 stories a day touching on the topic of obesity. "I think we are only at the beginning of looking at that issue," she says. The obesity offensive Some PR people see a major shift coming in food PR, as companies move from the defensive to the offensive on the obesity issue. That will mean more nutritional research and more PR to get out messages about good nutrition (see sidebar). "We might have reached a tipping point where some consumers are as concerned about nutrition as they are about taste," says Steve Bryant, chief creative officer of Publicis Dialog US. Maybe so, but in the short term, food and beverage PR will continue to try and reach people by evoking homey images and thoughts that life is going on despite the new uncertainties in the world. "Consumers are looking for a return to normalcy, and that also relates to what they're eating," says Julie Johnson, food and beverage practice chair at Carmichael Lynch Spong in Minneapolis. "What you are seeing is a major saturation of new products trying to touch the consumer in ways that make them feel part of the brand." Consumers want food to remind them that life goes on, says Stacy Bender, president of The Bender Hammerling Group. "People don't want to live every day of their lives under a black cloud." ----- Slim pickings: A shift to talking nutrition Food PR efforts generally involve tried-and-true methods, such as sampling events, stunts, and giant creations that can grab some media attention and hopefully a few minutes on a morning talk show. But that timeworn approach could be about to change. Obesity has become a new bogeyman in America, and food companies are fretting consumers may start blaming them for their inability to eat less. While some have begun talking about moderation and balanced diets, food PR people say that's just the beginning. They envision food companies making a major shift in how they market their products. Talking about nutrition, the nutritional benefits of foods, and specific ingredients in foods is the future of food PR, they contend. Food companies will do more to counsel consumers on healthy lifestyles, says Kathy Weber, SVP and director of food and nutrition marketing at Golin/Harris International. "These companies are feeling the need to do something positive, and I think it needs to go beyond nutrition education to developing programs that people can incorporate into their lives," she says. Bill Layden, EVP and director of the food and nutrition practice at Edelman, says he's seen "an increased interest in nutrition issues from the more sophisticated multinational food companies, and the major commodity groups. I think sophisticated companies want to be part of the solution." Linda Eatherton, EVP and director of Ketchum's global food and nutrition practice, says, "No one's really owning the nutrition market now - there is an intense need to brand that nutritional market." She sees food companies sponsoring more nutrition research, and partnering with others to become known as experts on nutrition. The slower economy and tighter budgets have forced food brand managers to think in the short term in their PR efforts today, she contends. "They're forced into a short box. Brand managers seem to be intent on spending their money on stunts," she says. But as the economy revives and food marketing budgets increase, expect nutrition research and nutrition messaging to get a good share of that extra spending. "The majority of food and beverage companies, if they haven't looked at a nutrition angle before, they are now," says Renee Yosco, SVP and director of marketing communications at Hill & Knowlton. She says she sees more and more functional foods (items that include specific ingredients for specific health issues), and more PR programs to explain them. But doing that won't be easy. "The job for us as marketers is to talk about nutrition in a way that doesn't take the fun out of food," says Steve Bryant, chief creative officer of Publicis Dialog US. And in American food culture, that could prove to be a challenge.