The fight against obesity is opening up a range of opportunities for healthcare PR. European Union plans to introduce regulations on health claims for foods in 2005 - which will scrutinise marketing declarations such as 'low-fat,' and 'reduced sugar', while outlawing percentage claims such as '98 per cent fat-free', and slogans that profess products encourage 'general well-being' - could mean an advertising slogan won't be as hard-hitting as the client might like.
Therefore, clients that are keen to broadcast their health messages but nervous about stringent advertising regulations are likely to consider PR.
'There is much less room for standard food marketing,' says Kaizo director Rosemary Brook, whose clients include The Dairy Council and Columbus Eggs, which are supplemented with Omega 3. 'The EU will be much tougher on what you can say, the pithy slogan that isn't accurate or explicit enough won't be acceptable any longer.'
Encouragingly, the issue is far bigger than just this directive. Press reports, first in the US and now here, have been raising the question over the last few months 'Is junk food the new tobacco?'. Articles compare the similarities of placing fat warnings on food to health warnings on cigarettes, the campaigning of health lobbies with that of anti-tobacco groups, and the battle to get food manufacturers to publicly accept their food, at least in part, contributes to obesity just as smoking causes lung cancer.
'The PR opportunity also lies with the huge amount of education about healthy eating that is required, and no consumer brand can now afford to ignore the health impact,' adds Brook.
In addition, there is the rise of the 'healthsumer'. This is a relatively new breed of consumer who is bombarded with health stories throughout the day, from GMTV and Radio 4's Women's Hour to the Daily Mail and the Ten O'Clock News.
'We are now a nation of "healthsumers",' says Caroline Page, managing director of Cohn & Wolfe's consumer health arm Elixir. One of the agency's clients is Cereal Partners, which has just had a health claim about the benefits of Nestle's Shredded Wheat to 'heart health' passed. 'We have become much more aware of our health over the past ten years and want more information on health issues,' she adds.
Danone, another of Elixir's clients, has turned to PR and product sampling to gain a little freedom from rigid advertising guidelines for its 'probiotic' yoghurt drink Actimel.
'PR allows you greater flexibility in interpretation,' adds Page. 'It might be challenging to process a regulatory claim that Actimel boosts the body's immunity, but a journalist can effectively offer an editorial perspective on the science behind the claim. PR allows you to say a lot more. It also lends itself to these type of health campaigns, because you can have a very detailed dialogue with consumers about relatively complex nutritional issues.'
Recruiting experts such as the celebrity doctor Rob Hicks is also a big part of Elixir's Actimel campaign. 'Experts are much better at getting the message across and add weight to the claims,' explains Page.'
Countrywide Porter Novelli director of food issues Keith Taylor believes the third party endorsement of a product's health claims through PR may have an even bigger part to play once the directive is passed.
'PR already plays a significant role in promoting the health claims of products because it can provide third party endorsement other marketing disciplines can't by, for example, using nutritionists who can be quoted on press releases,' says Taylor. 'If endorsements by bodies other than the European Food Safety Agency will no longer be possible in supporting advertising, then this role could become increasingly important.'
Taylor points to Ribena Toothkind, which is accredited by the British Dental Association, as a typical example of a brand that gains credibility from its endorsers.
Nevertheless, Taylor is anxious to stress that there is danger in thinking PR can be used to promote claims that otherwise would not be substantiated.
'The promotion of a bogus or weak claim via any marketing discipline could adversely impact the reputation of both the product and the company,' he states.
To ensure their clients don't suffer a health claims backlash, the onus will partly be on PR practitioners to pick their way through scientific studies, and to ensure they are capable of seeing new research objectively, and not overclaim on the benefits of a product.
This extra responsibility is guaranteed to change the way the consumer healthcare side of the industry works.
Some predict they will behave more like pharmaceutical PROs, adopting a researched, detailed, educational approach over the quick-turnaround, headline-grabbing kind. 'Even before the introduction of EU labelling we should expect scientific claims to be challenged with greater rigour by journalists, and there is an important role for PR here,' says Media Strategy managing director Charles Lewington. 'It may mean learning more from the pharmaceutical industry and investing more in long-term independent research,' he says.
The next obvious move in this direction, according to Brook, is a closer alliance between consumer and healthcare PROs and nutritionists.
Food giant Nestle claims to have been working closely with its nutrition team for years. 'They are involved in all aspects of product/brand development from concept onwards, including all our marketing and PR campaigns,' says Nestle corporate affairs department press and PR officer Marie Fagan.
'The directive will make it very important to use qualified nutritional advice, rather than alternative 'gurus', and provide balanced and well-informed advice, not flaky claims that pander to the latest fad - which is what legislators are trying to deter,' explains Brook. 'I've been in the US for the last month, which already has an escalating obesity problem, and I can see we have a massive communications challenge ahead. Health professionals, food producers and communicators need to work more closely together than ever, especially with consumer's health as a primary concern.'
But while this might catch the eye of the ABC1 'healthsumer' who scours her Times health supplement every week, the difficulty will be getting the health message digested by those who are blissfully happy with their burger and fries.
It's about finding the balance between being a responsible food manufacturer who cares about consumer health and supplying the taste, variety and convenience that many - 'healthsumers' excluded - still demand. It's sizing up to be a major PR challenge.
KRAFT'S CAMPAIGN TO FIGHT OBESITY
Like all food manufacturers Kraft, which owns the Dairylea and Philadelphia brands, will be forced to comply with guidelines contained in the EU regulation on health claims.
But by the time it becomes law, possibly in 2005, Kraft is hoping to bypass any negative publicity over the fat content of its foods by having introduced its own voluntary labelling as part of a global pre-emptive PR strike against food industry critics.
In a July press release one of the world's largest food firms pledged to provide on-pack nutritional information, and cap the size of its single-serve products. It also aims to cut fat and salt levels 'wherever possible', and is considering extending its lower fat range.
Kraft has also set down marketing guidelines that revolve around encouraging 'appropriate eating and activity behaviours' to get the company's products associated with an active lifestyle and portrayed as part of a varied or balanced diet.
According to Kraft UK corporate affairs director Joanna Scott, PR tactics will include the use of 'information channels' such as websites and carelines 'to help consumers become better informed' about the nutritional aspects of Kraft's products. It already offers information on healthy lifestyles and healthy recipes online.
'We do a significant amount of advertising and there's no reason to believe we won't continue to do so within the guidelines, but I certainly feel we can enhance our communication through PR,' says Scott.
But it is the CSR or 'public outreach' projects that will particularly interest corporate affairs directors anxious about the impact of public concern over obesity on their company's reputation. These projects might involve sponsoring local fitness initiatives or healthy eating courses.
'It's early days, but we want to explore the idea of finding partners with whom to go into the community to promote physical activity and healthy eating,' explains Scott. 'The general feeling among food manufacturers is of responsibility to consumers regarding issues such as obesity.' Kraft already runs several 'public outreach' projects in the US, and in the UK the company part-funds Food Fitness, a programme aimed at children, operated by the food manufacturer industry body The Food and Drink Federation.
It has just created a Food Fitness CD Rom for primary schools and promotes the scheme on its Dairylea Lunchables Range.
Although drives like this are not new, the scale and commitment of Kraft's campaign has at least got the health lobby in the US listening.
But will it be enough to convince critics that Kraft is serious about tackling obesity? Particularly after Cadbury's sports equipment promotion prompted such controversy, when the company launched a campaign for children to earn the equipment through collecting vouchers from chocolate products.
Only if Kraft keeps its promise to cut the size and fat content of its brands, says Countrywide Porter Novelli director of food issues Keith Taylor. 'Companies have been using similar programmes for some time to be seen as good corporate citizens,' he adds. 'But the interesting thing about these regulations is that they may reinforce a move to look at the intrinsic goodness of the products themselves.'