The nonprofit Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) is making that case to consumers, along with conveying that the supplement industry is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. But it can be an uphill battle to counter press portrayals of supplements as part of an "alternative lifestyle," says Judy Blatman, CRN's SVP of communications.
"As an industry, we talk a lot about [how] the way we are portrayed in the media is not the industry we know," she says. "Everyone I know within the industry takes supplements, believes in supplements, believes in the regulations and the rules, and [the industry] really has the consumer at the heart of this business. The stories are focusing on the outliers, the companies that were skirting along the regulations, and were focusing on one or two specific products."
The council also stresses the higher-than-average use of nutritional supplements by medical professionals as an example of how they can be used properly, says Patrice Tanaka, CRT/tanaka co-chair and chief creative officer, who is working with CRN on a campaign called "Life...supplemented."
"Dietary supplements are embraced not only by 150 million Americans, [but] by doctors and other healthcare [pros]," she says. "They take dietary supplements even more than the general population, and they recommend them to their patients."
CRN employs four communications pros within its 14-member, full-time staff. Communications strategy overall centers on media and consumer outreach, as well as directing traffic to LifeSupplemented.org through search engine optimization techniques. The organization does most PR work in-house, but employs agencies for particular campaigns, as it is doing for the three-year "Life...supplemented."
That campaign, budgeted at about $1 million annually, aims to dissuade consumers from the misconception that a supplement regimen is a substitute for other healthy practices, such as exercise, a nutritious diet, and regular trips to the doctor.
"We really focus on the three pillars of wellness: a healthy diet, supplements, and physical activity or exercise," Blatman explains. "When you take supplements, you need to incorporate them consistently over [a] long term, and they need to be part of a preventative health program."
The campaign largely targets Americans born before 1964, who may not have used health supplements as a part of wellness strategy. Baby boomers are also more health-conscious than previous generations, says Season Solorio, CRN PR director.
"As people are getting older, they [have needs] other than diet alone, so we're reminding this particular group that they need to take dietary supplements," she adds. "They're also... more likely to take charge of their health, whereas other demographic groups aren't as much in charge of that."
CRN faces a communications challenge every time a new scientific study or report is released that mentions the use of supplements. With each report, the organization always strives to explain to the media and the public that doctors remain the best source of information for consumers about health.
Individual studies are "very confusing to customers, who are told to do one thing one day and then when a [new] study comes out they [are told] something different," Blatman says. "One thing that we're known for is that when a study comes out, we are the go-to voice in the industry."
CRN is also attempting to make clear the difference between the regulated supplement industry and illegal steroids, which has become more challenging since prominent athletes involved in doping scandals have claimed they thought they were taking legal supplements instead of steroids or human-growth hormone. Media-education campaigns about the differences between the two are paying off, Blatman says.
"We wind up spending a lot of time correcting this misperception. Steroids are not supplements," she says. "The key thing is [the athletes are trying] to deflect... from the actual issue in those sports, and the media, for the most part, is not biting."
At a glance
Organization: Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN)
President and CEO: Steven Mister
Headquarters: Washington, DC
Operating budget: $3.9 million
Key titles: Natural Products Insider, Functional Ingredients, Nutritional Outlook, Neutraceuticals World, Tan Sheet
PR budget: $1.032 million for "Life... supplemented" campaign. Annual PR budget for other projects undisclosed.
Comms team: Judy Blatman, comms SVP; Season Solorio, PR director; Erin Hlasney, director of media relations; Kate Murphy, comms coordinator;Gretchen Powers, freelance comms specialist
PR agency: CRT/tanaka (for "Life... supplemented"); other agencies used on a project-to-project basis