Archives for category: Public Relations

Mother Jones has a superb new article on the public relations behind sugar. It begins as follows:

ON A BRISK SPRING Tuesday in 1976, a pair of executives from the Sugar Association stepped up to the podium of a Chicago ballroom to accept the Oscar of the public relations world, the Silver Anvil award for excellence in “the forging of public opinion.” The trade group had recently pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in PR history. For nearly a decade, the sugar industry had been buffeted by crisis after crisis as the media and the public soured on sugar and scientists began to view it as a likely cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Industry ads claiming that eating sugar helped you lose weight had been called out by the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration had launched a review of whether sugar was even safe to eat. Consumption had declined 12 percent in just two years, and producers could see where that trend might lead. As John “JW” Tatem Jr. and Jack O’Connell Jr., the Sugar Association’s president and director of public relations, posed that day with their trophies, their smiles only hinted at the coup they’d just pulled off.

Their winning campaign, crafted with the help of the prestigious public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, had been prompted by a poll showing that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes. With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling, which, the Silver Anvil application boasted, made it “unlikely that sugar will be subject to legislative restriction in coming years.”

The story of sugar, as Tatem told it, was one of a harmless product under attack by “opportunists dedicated to exploiting the consuming public.” Over the subsequent decades, it would be transformed from what the New York Times in 1977 had deemed “a villain in disguise” into a nutrient so seemingly innocuous that even the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association approved it as part of a healthy diet. Research on the suspected links between sugar and chronic disease largely ground to a halt by the late 1980s, and scientists came to view such pursuits as a career dead end. So effective were the Sugar Association’s efforts that, to this day, no consensus exists about sugar’s potential dangers. The industry’s PR campaign corresponded roughly with a significant rise in Americans’ consumption of “caloric sweeteners,” including table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This increase was accompanied, in turn, by a surge in the chronic diseases increasingly linked to sugar. Since 1970, obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled, while the incidence of diabetes has more than tripled.

Read the entire article and related items here.


A Lake Oswego public affairs firm has come under scrutiny for its role in a broad-based public relations effort mounted by a company seeking to dispel criticism that its widely used herbicide, atrazine, is a public health threat.

The firm, Quinn Thomas Public Affairs, is headed by Doug Badger and Rick Thomas, who are both well known in Republican political circles in the state.

The public relations effort mounted by Syngenta Crop Protection, the subsidiary of a Swiss-based company, was found in company documents obtained through a lawsuit and reported in a lengthy article by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch.

It’s a fascinating look at how the burgeoning public affairs industry works in seeking to influence regulators and shape public attitudes.

In this case, the company put out a solicitation for PR help and then hired the White House Writers Group, which was started by by a group of former presidential speechwriters. In its proposal to Syngenta, the White House group said it would work with Quinn Thomas. According to the article:

Quinn Thomas “was specifically touted for its success in ‘engaging’ lawyers who represent American consumers and in fighting public interest groups through ‘aggressive third party activity.’ WHWG said Quinn Thomas’ tactics had successfully slowed or reversed ‘activist momentum.'”

The article goes on to say that Quinn Thomas hired an Arizona researcher to look into a journalist who wrote several stories for the Huffington Post about concerns that atrazine — widely used as a weed killer — was being found in municipal water supplies around the Midwest and was a potential public health threat.

The March, 2010 report delivered to Quinn Thomas said the reporter, Danielle Ivory, had broken several stories about atrazine, “which means her professional reputation and ego are tied to the effectiveness of the attack on the chemical.”

The report also questioned her ties with environmental groups through the Tides Foundation. Tides helped fund the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which at one point employed Ivory. It also said she had worked for a “who’s who of anti-employer employers,” including longtime public broadcasting journalist Bill Moyers and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

(It was not just Ivory who was looking into atrazine. The New York Times had written in 2009 about concerns that atrazine was potentially dangerous in lower concentrations than previously thought.)

In addition, the PR Watch story said that Quinn Thomas also received a dossier from the same research company on the Natural Resources Defense Council, which published a critical report on atrazine.

PR Watch said that the writers group and Quinn Thomas also worked on an “array of tactics” to advance the company’s strategy of getting third parties to support of echo the company’s point of view.

One tactic was to have Syngenta’s chief scientist ghostwrite a chapter on atrazine that could then be included in a book challenging regulatory policies adverse to the company.

In 2011, a book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens the Public Health,” was released. It was authored by John Entine, a writer at the American Enterprise Institute who the White House Writers Group had contacted. The book included a chapter defending atrazine.

Rick Thomas, one of the partners at Quinn Thomas, declined to talk about the article, saying that the firm’s “general policy is that we do not comment on work that we may do on behalf of our clients.”


Image from Flickr.

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