With Big Tobacco burning millions to block states' smoke-free restaurant referenda, a band of scientists from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) countered with a new report.
"Contrary to what Big Tobacco is telling us, there is no ventilation system that can reduce secondhand smoke exposure to safe levels," says Jack Henningfield, director of the RWJF Innovators Awards Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine. As 2006 elections approached, Henningfield sought to publicize findings of a scientific paper by researcher James Repace - an Innovators Award recipient - and retained M Booth & Associates to help.
"We're a health organization; we don't have the ad budget of McDonald's," Henningfield says. "PR is not just a part of this campaign. It is the campaign. Without PR, the science is useless."
The message, as articulated in the study, countered Big Tobacco/hospitality industry arguments on the effectiveness of high-tech "displacement" ventilation systems in removing secondhand smoke toxins from non-smoking sections.
M Booth faced substantial obstacles. "Health and science reporters usually focus on well-known, peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals," says Dennis Tartaglia, M Booth SVP.
The study was published in an engineering journal, ASHRAE IAQ Applications, not exactly required reading for most reporters. What's more, the journal isn't subject to the same level of peer review that most of these journalists require, Tartaglia concedes.
Still, M Booth knew the study provided evidence that advocates, policymakers, and hospitality workers could use to demonstrate the need for legislative action.
M Booth examined coverage of earlier studies Repace had conducted, while also tracking state-by-state activity of smoke-free laws and referenda to design a media strategy.
The firm reached out to smoke-free ballot groups in the battleground states of Arizona, Ohio, and Nevada to disseminate the study, as well as learn the nuances of local initiatives and media.
"We also looked at the formidable foes these groups were up against," Tartaglia says.
"Given the stakes on Election Day, we felt the study would have the most impact and most media interest if it was released shortly before the election," he adds.
Coverage successfully supported the passage of smoking referenda in all three states, as well as adoption of Atlantic City, NJ's smoke ban (a partial victory, as it bans smoking on three-quarters of casino gambling floors in the city.
The volume of coverage included nearly 1,000 stories and 62 million impressions, says Tartaglia, in such outlets as the AP, The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, HealthDay.com, Scripps Howard News Service, ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, Univision.com, MSNBC.com, Fox- News.com, Prevention, and Tavis Smiley's radio show.
Coverage also included outlets in battleground states, including The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Arizona Republic, as well as The Press of Atlantic City.
Although this campaign was based solely on the release of that specific study, "we hope to work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on future programs with similar impact," Tartaglia says.
PR team: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Innovators Awards (Baltimore) and M Booth & Associates (New York)
Campaign: Extinguishing Big Tobacco's Ventilation Claims
Duration: October to November 2006
Going up against an entity like Big Tobacco that has billions to spend promoting its own agenda is not easy, even if you have the science to back your claims.
In this case, the PR team wisely realized that although science was the backbone of the effort, the most important thing was to get the central message across.
Henningfield puts it best in saying, "First and foremost, I am a scientist. But science becomes irrelevant if you can't get the message through to the people who make the decisions and to the general public."
Also key was focusing on the battleground states and learning the ins and outs of local initiatives and media, which ultimately helped pass the referenda.