While weight loss and dieting have been a surefire media topic for generations, much of that coverage has focused on how to look better by losing a few pounds.
But with obesity a major concern for many Americans, weight gain and loss is now being looked at by the media in a new light, says James Zervios, communications director for the Tampa-based Obesity Action Coalition. "Now you're starting to get more stories on how this is a quality-of-health and quality-of-life issue," he says.
"The mainstream media have accepted that obesity is an epidemic," says Bob Brody, Ogilvy PR Worldwide SVP, adding that reporters are increasingly willing to shift away from diet tips and devote more coverage to gastric bypass surgery and other medical procedures.
Because obesity is a public health issue, it means the story is covered by a wider variety of beats. "Issues such as insurance coverage of weight-loss treatments [are being] covered in the business pages," says Zervios. "You're also seeing more family and community pages focusing on childhood obesity and the steps schools are taking."
Surprisingly, David Schemelia, SVP/media director with HealthSTAR Public Relations, says there remains a lingering gender bias in the coverage. Schemelia is now working with GlaxoSmithKline on the rollout of Alli, the over-the-counter version of the weight-loss drug Xenical. "We're finding a lot of interest in the women's books," he says, "but the men's publications haven't quite come around."
But Dr. Cathy Kapica, Ketchum VP and director of global health and wellness, says reporters are shifting away from blaming fast food or a simple lack of willpower for the current obesity epidemic. "There is a media realization that there are no easy answers, which is the first step toward finding a solution," she says. "Obesity will continue to be of interest to the media, but they'll be looking for new and different solutions."
Schemelia says PR pitches can no longer just focus on miracle diets. They need more science and medical experts to back up any claims. "We use doctors, nutritionists, and dieticians, but we also use pharmacists," he advises. "We found from studies that a lot of times patients and their doctors don't talk about weight, but everybody talks to pharmacists, so they're very credible experts."
These stories also need human drama. Zervios says many of the morbidly obese are increasingly willing to discuss their situation. "Many are so used to being discriminated against that they just want their story out," he says.
PITCHING... Weight loss and obesity
Don't treat weight loss and obesity as the same story. The audience that needs to lose 10 to 20 pounds is completely different from obese people who need more comprehensive and complex solutions
With obesity now considered a public health epidemic, the bar is higher in terms of support materials to back up weight-loss product claims, so have your studies and medical experts ready
You can get a lot of traction off the health page by pitching obesity as a business, family, or community story