Opinion: Food firms slow to tackle child obesity

About four years ago, Sir David Arculus, then head of the Better Regulation Task Force and chairman of Severn Trent, delivered a speech to a group of food manufacturing CEOs on the industry's uncomfortable emerging 'issues'.

Yet the things he talked about appear to only now be making an impact on companies’ PR behaviour.

Earlier this week, the parent of Mars announced that it was no longer going to target ads at under-12s, in response to concerns about childhood obesity. But what had taken it so long? Has the PR profession been asleep at the wheel?

How is it that this initiative is still newsworthy, and that many other big food manufactures either have no policy at all on this issue, or are still marketing aggressively to younger children?

We are told often enough that reputation man­agement is more important than brand manage­ment because a company on the wrong side of public outrage will suffer huge damage. BSkyB is one company that has shown it understands this with its decision to commit (as a company, not as a broad­caster) to slowing the rate of global warming. Its logic is that if there is another natural disaster blamed on climate change, compan­ies will be judged by where they stand on the issue. And it will be too late after the event to declare oneself on the side of the angels. The public will not be fooled.

The issue in this story is why some companies are sensitive to issues and respond, while others appear to steamroller on regardless. Why can Sky move quickly on something that is actually tangen­tial to its business, but food companies be slow to react to something that is central to their inter­ests? Perhaps that is the answer – the fact that Sky has no direct business involvement in climate change meant there were no serious internal lobbies and entrenched     interests,     each with an empire to defend and a turf war to fight. At Sky, no one was threatened, so it was easy to change.

In most hierarchical companies, in contrast, change creates losers – so it happens only with a painful slowness that the public are unlikely to tolerate.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

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