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To Correct and Serve

<p>In the communications department of a trade association, the purpose to protect and serve is supplemented by this motto: to correct and serve. The important role of communications requires time spent playing defense, while also engaging in proactive initiatives.</p>

One might argue the main purpose of a trade association is similar to that of the police force: to protect and serve. There are days we take bullets, and days we dodge bullets. There are also days when we fight criminals. Our job is to make the streets safe for responsible companies to sell their products, free of burdensome, duplicative and oppressive—but not all—regulations and legislation. We don’t have blue uniforms but sometimes we’re black and blue, and even bruised, but that’s a uniform we wear proudly.

One might also argue if you work in the communications department of a trade association, as I do, the purpose to protect and serve is supplemented by this motto: to correct and serve. And if you work for the dietary supplement industry, there is a lot of correcting and a lot of serving going on with the press. On a daily basis, my colleague Marc Ullman shares with us—at no charge I might add—a compilation of media clips that invariably includes at least one article that gets the concept of supplement industry regulation wrong. Those errors run the gamut from “unregulated" to “loosely regulated" to “under-regulated" with the occasional consider-it-a-victory “regulated as a category of food instead of drugs."  

At CRN, our members recognize the important role of communications, and so with a communications department of four, fortunately we’re able to spend some time playing defense, while also engaging in proactive initiatives. We pay attention to stories that need correcting, and we correct the most egregious through “Letters to the Editor," and letters to the reporter, or phone calls, or posting in the comments section. You might ask, does it matter?

The answer is sometimes “yes" and sometimes “no."

Let’s start with the no—because we’re often sending missives into a black hole, reaching out to reporters who have their minds made up, or are on to the next story, or don’t believe us because we are industry. Or we’ve posted comment number 3 out of 153, which means all the other posters are too busy posting snark or sharing their own experiences to actually read, or even care, what anyone else is saying. Or we’re the only one that has posted, the lone apparition in an on-line ghost town.

But then there’s the yes, because sometimes it leads to success! Sometimes you get to sit down with someone at the editorial board of The New York Times, as CRN recently did. And sometimes, when you’re on patrol watching for errors, you get to correct those errors before they hit the airwaves. For example, Nancy Stewart, CRN’s senior director of communications, works closely with the press, and received an email last month from a network morning show that she’s developed a relationship with because of the fact she’s been “correcting and serving" many of their stories. The producer asked for our comment on a piece they were planning to air that indicated taking vitamins was likely to increase cancer. I said, sure we’d comment, but first we needed to see the study. Well, after a little back and forth with the producer, and a call to the university that had issued the press release, it turns out there was no study—just a clever PR person trying to make hay of an upcoming presentation by one of his university’s researchers. When we wised-up the producer as to what was going on, they killed the story.

It also matters because our members take pride in their products, in their jobs, and in this industry. And we take pride in our members. If you’re following the rules (and if you’re a regulatory wonk), you know there is an avalanche of those rules. If you’re following those rules—and make no mistake, the best companies are—you don’t want to wake up in the morning to a front-page newspaper piece that accuses your company or your suppliers or your retail customers of selling products without the active ingredients in them, especially if that supposition is meritless. So we correct and serve.

But we also can’t lose sight of the big picture—that our maturing industry is facing an image problem that goes beyond a quick public relations fix. We need to take a long look in the mirror and if we’re not the problem, we have to figure out how we make the problem go away. Those conversations are happening—certainly in our trade association, at industry trade shows, and in critics’ circles.

At CRN, we’ll continue to protect and serve. But we’re also looking down the road and asking: what’s the end game and how do we get there?

Judy Blatman is the senior vice president of communications for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade association representing dietary supplement and functional food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers.

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