When Media Relations Fail, Go Grassroots

April 9, 2007

5 Min Read
When Media Relations Fail, Go Grassroots

There was a time—long ago and far away—when it was relatively easy to generate major mainstream media coverage about dietary supplements that was actually positive. If you got a story in one of the really big daily papers or on a national TV program, other media would follow. Of course, this was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

In recent years, the mainstream media has been much more likely to run negative stories that warn their readers away from vitamins and herbs, even to the point of misrepresenting science. With time and hard work the pendulum will swing back, but in the meantime, how do we get word to consumers about supplement products in today’s media environment if the “top down” model is nearly impossible? Grassroots tactics. The tactics suggested here are as effective for ingredients as they are for finished products—in some cases more so.

One way to get your information in front of literally millions of consumers is a “mat release.” This is written as a news story, not an ad, but you pay a service to distribute it to newspapers nationwide. The NAPS service has proven very successful for many industry companies, but there are other services as well.

These organizations send camera-ready articles to newspapers whose editors then pick and choose what to use. Small- and medium-size market newspapers have limited staff, so this type of service helps them fill their pages with high-quality material. The objective, then, is to provide the type of article those editors are most likely to use.

It is important to have a good news angle and to write copy like a newspaper article, not a news release or an ad. This is particularly effective when promoting an ingredient rather than a finished product because it lends itself to a less promotional tone. Most services will write the article using information you provide; however, it is important to review it very carefully for accuracy and regulatory compliance, since those firms are not experts in the nutraceutical arena. Companies and reps can also write the story, and the services will review it and offer suggestions in order to strengthen its appeal to editors.

Including a photo or graphic—not a company logo or product shot—with an interesting, informative caption can help get more pick up. For example, one article I did on zeaxanthin to help Baby Boomers protect their vision included a photo of a marigold, from which natural zeaxanthin is extracted, which added strong visual interest. For a story on methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) for joint health we included a picture of a knee X-ray, which editors also appreciated. Both of those articles are still getting a lot of pick up months after initial distribution.

As part of their service, the distributor will provide clippings of the stories as well as reports on distribution, including how many people have seen the article. The shelf life of mat releases is approximately six months; after the clippings taper off, it is time to do another one with a different angle.

Another extremely effective grassroots tactic is to convey information about your products to consumers via their trusted retailer. A recent poll reaffirmed one of consumers’ primary resources for supplement information and recommendations is the store where they buy them. A well-educated staff has always been key to product sales in our industry. So how do you reach them to teach them?

Visibility in trade magazines, including product mentions, information and quotes in applicable articles, or expert contributions, as well as advertising, are all a good start. Watch the trade magazines’ editorial calendars. When an article appears to fit your ingredients or services, contact the editor at least three months in advance to see who is writing it and let them know specifically what kind of information you can provide. Don’t wait for them to call you, unless you are a heavy advertiser. If they do reach out to you, return those calls promptly. A missed deadline is a wasted opportunity to sell more product.

Sponsoring educational sessions at retail-oriented trade shows can be very effective in educating retailers. Natural Products Expos West and East are fairly large venues with a broad reach of retailers, mainstream and health food alike. The Natural Products Association’s Natural Marketplace trade show is a smaller show, but tends to draw a more committed retail base with great interest in becoming educated about the products they stock. These sessions afford an opportunity to provide information specific to your products and help drive retailers to the booth during show floor hours. Consider using staff educators to give the presentation, which helps build relationships with the attendees.

Using educators to provide in-store training is terrifically effective. Some of the top specialty brands in the herbal category, for example, don’t have much of a marketing program but do well based upon educating retailers. Gaia Herbs’ Omar Cruz and Planetary Formulas’ Tom Dadant are among the many active educators teaching retailers about the lines they represent, creating loyal customers who are passionate advocates for those lines.

Another tactic I have used with some clients is providing retailers with articles that coach them on getting local publicity for their stores and the products they sell, along with press kits they can customize.

If your company has a particularly good story to tell, and the retailer is so inclined, this tactic can result in regional press coverage that increases traffic in the store as well as your product’s sales. It is also helps the store do more business.

Outreach efforts should also drive people to the corporate Web site, which must include substantial and accurate information. One new trend is companies launching Web sites dedicated to the science of particular branded products, such as Bergstrom Nutrition’s www.MSMguide.com, or CS Health’s www.yoursgsmed.com. Ingredient-specific sites offer studies, facts, articles, background on the conditions the products address and information for practitioners.

Using grassroots outreach to your customers and their customers can circumvent the mainstream media’s anti-supplement bias and provide a significant boost to your sales efforts. Ultimately, we all want to help people be healthier. By using grassroots tactics to speak to consumers, we can continue to do that, in spite of the The New York Times

Suzanne Shelton is an industry consultant and head of The Shelton Group (www.sheltongrouppr.com), a boutique public relations firm serving the natural products industry.

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