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The media holography

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The media. One minute they love you; the next minute they hate you. This is nothing new. Depending on which media outlets you track and which articles you read, you can view the coverage trends as positive or negative. But this isnt the only media topic that can look different from various angles.

Reactions or responses to media coverage of products, a company or an industry/market can also be a matter of perspective. Whats more one dimensional is the notion media coverage affects the industry, and companies need to consider this an important part of their business.

Fair and balanced?

Beloved journalist Walter Cronkite said, to find truth, you have to seek both sides of the story. Whether a matter of fact or a truth between the lines, presenting both sides of a story at least approaches fair and balanced coverage.

I have not found the media to be balancedor, in many cases, particularly accuratein covering the supplement industry, said John Gay, CEO and executive director of the Natural Products Association (NPA). He suggested its not always a case of journalists out to get the industry, but negative, inaccurate coverage tends to feed on itself, as writers preparing their own stories often simply reference the work done earlier by others.

Keep in mind NPA and Gay are very active in Washington on political and regulatory affairs, in addition to a pursuit of scientific advancement. The regulation of supplements and the science supporting their safety, efficacy and use has been under fire lately, if not for the past decade or more. So, its little wonder media coverage would appear to be primarily skewed negative.

Long-time public relations (PR) specialist and industry crusader Suzanne Shelton, president of The Shelton Group, also has a lingering sense the average slant of supplement coverage in the media is unfavorable and has been so for a long while. Coverage is not balanced, in a variety of ways, she said. Echoing the view of NPA and other industry Insidersincluding attorney Marc Ullman, partner with Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman, and Jon Benninger, vice president of business development for Virgo Publishing , publisher of the INSIDERwho are active in tracking and addressing media coverage, Shelton listed the charge of unregulated industry as one of the prime examples of imbalanced coverage.

This one enrages me, she snarled , describing the claims supplements are some unregulated Wild West. I tried to get an industry group that was raising money to do PR campaigns years ago to tackle this one head on, and they decided not to. So now [lack of regulation] is an established fact in the minds of producers, reporters and many consumers. She said she finds herself constantly correcting people, telling them the industry is indeed regulated, just not regulated quite the same way drugs are regulated. Our products dont need to be.

Regulation is something fairly concrete. Reporters can turn to many sources when conducting research for their articles. Some reporters must, as Gay suggested, mine old articles, finding mass-media voices saying the industry is unregulated. That said, rarely should anyone expect to see an article mention the industry is well-regulated; they either dont mention regulation or say it is un- or under-regulated.   Thus, two images can appear: one showing a variety of articles, with some mentioning regulation and others not; and one showing far too many instances of reporters calling the industry unregulated, regardless of the number of other stories not touching the topic. This is part of the holography: different views from different angles.

No matter the perspective, the problem with inaccurate reporting of government oversight suggests other problems, such as not utilizing the right experts or sources. Reporters often use experts that have no real knowledge of supplements or herbs and just parrot the party line of untested, blah blah blah, Shelton noted.   If you are reporting on, for example, a negative study on herbs and you interview someone from AHPA [American Herbal Products Association] or a clinical herbalist, they can put it in perspective. She said often the wrong part of the plant is used, the study tests for something that herb isnt traditionally used for, or it does not use a therapeutic dose. Using someone who knows how to dissect a study would make for a more balanced story. When was the last time you saw that happen?

Shelton added media outlets often treat one study as definitive. Often, one study is reported as the final answer, but we all know that you should look at the body of science, she said. They rarely do that.

PR veteran Judy Blatman, senior vice president of communication at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), noted the media use specific criteria to cover study results. In these types of articles, journalists tend to give more priority and space to the scientists who performed and reported the study, while people or even experts responding to the study get, at most, a quote or two, she explained. Some media outlets go above and beyond this to include more response, however, such as WebMD.

Similar to other industry insiders, Blatman is most disappointed when reporters are sloppy and do not thoroughly fact check. As an example, she noted recent ABC News coverage of 12 high-school athletes in Oregon who suffered from compartment syndrome. She said ABC blamed creatine before any real facts came out, ripening the climate for bashing creatine in the media. When the real story came out that the kids hadnt taken creatine, ABC never issued a correction. We reached out to them, but got no response.

These experiences reported by industry advocates certainly show a lack of a balance in coverage of certain industry-related stories, the media are rarely constant when it comes to bias. Blatman said publicity is cyclical. We definitely get our fair share of bad press, but all industries go through the same thing; we are not being singled out. However, she noted with these cycles, when there is more regulatory enforcement, you tend to see the media pick up on these types of stories.

The medias responsiveness to industry experts and suggestions is about 50-50, in Blatmans estimation. There is an editor at Sports Illustrated and one at the New York Times who have been responsive to us, she said. It doesnt mean we will like their entire coverage of our industry, but they are trying to understand our perspective.

In fact, the news on supplements isnt entirely negative. We may get bad publicity, but we also get good publicity, such as recent positive coverage of vitamin D, Blatman noted, adding SAMe also has gotten strong pick-up in the press recently.

Accepting that the press sometimes lauds you and sometimes knocks you, simply achieving this balanced coverage would be a victory for many in the natural-products industry. Unfortunately the media often forgo contacting a representative from the company or product market it discusses in a given story. Such was apparently the case with the recent Consumer Reports (CR) 12 Dangerous Supplements to Avoid article, which included the herbal product bitter orange.

No, they didnt [contact us], said Bob Green, president of Nutratech, the exclusive supplier of the patented bitter orange ingredient Advantra Z®. And their decision to include bitter orange on this list is counter to all of the safety research that has been conducted on bitter orange over the past two decades.

CR dubbed bitter orange as possibly unsafe, making special note of its content of synephrine as similar to ephedrine, which was banned by FDA in 2004. When people link bitter orange to ephedra, we know they havent done their homework, Green asserted, saying he thinks they do it because bitter orange has frequently been incorporated into dietary supplement formulas that previously contained ephedra. Its true that both bitter orange and ephedra are natural thermogenic ingredients. But that is where the similarities end.

Understanding the key differences between bitter orange and ephedra is fairly technical, but Green explained, speaking only for his Advantra Z® ingredient, the main active (p-synephrine ) in bitter orange sound similar to and is often confused for a compound found in ephedra. The bitter orange compound does not have the side effects, such as raising blood pressure and heart rate. Scientists tell us that p-synephrine is structurally similar to ephedra, but pharmacologically different, Green added. Think about water (H2O) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)there is only one molecule of difference between the two, but you wouldnt want to drink the hydrogen peroxide.  This important distinction could have easily been researched by a call to the leading bitter-orange supplier or even a perusal of the research catalog on the companys website.

Attesting to the often lacking factual element of such articles, Green said the media like to ignore the fact that bitter orange has been considered a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) food ingredient by the FDA for decades. More than 100-million doses of products containing bitter orange have been consumed in the United States as dietary supplements, fruits and juices, without any serious incidents shown to have been caused by bitter orange.

This isnt a one-time mistake from CR. The magazine published its Dirty Dozen list of dangerous supplements in 2004, winning a response from AHPAs chief science officer Steven Dentali, Ph.D. In a letter to the editors of CR, Dentali clarified information CR included about several herbs on its dangerous list, including some that resurfaced in its 2010 list, such as bitter orange.

In his 2004 letter, Dentali also advised CR that corrected some information on several herbs on the listskullcap, pennyroyal, comfrey and herbs containing aristolochic acid. In response to the 2010 list, AHPA noted, although the editor never acknowledged receipt of Dentalis letter, it appears as if someone on staff may have read it, as the 2010 list is a revised and reprised version of the 2004 list that still includes comfrey, but the other four have now been removed, as have two non-herbal ingredients. However, CR added four new herbs to the dangerous list: aconite (Aconitum spp.), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), country mallow (Sida cordifolia) and greater celandine (Chelidonium majus).

While interviewing CRs senior program editor, Nancy Metcalf, NBCs Today Shows Matt Lauer said what struck him most when reading the list is he hadnt heard of most of these herbal supplements. AHPA and Nutrition Business Journal confirmed these ingredients represented a small fraction of 1 percent of the annual supplement market. AHPA further noted many of the herbal products listed in the updated CR article are either not sold in the form referenced by CR, are prohibited from sale by FDA and FTC, or are tagged with the proper warnings. The trade group also argued the CR article focuses mostly on individuals who suffered adverse reactions, including a couple of people who, unfortunately, took products that werent legal dietary supplements, but were either adulterated or an illegal drug.

Consumer Reports is attempting to draw broad conclusions about the regulation of dietary supplements based on anecdotes related to products that do not represent the mainstream, said Michael McGuffin, president of AHPA. This tone is unfortunate and misses an opportunity to express support for the efforts of responsible industry players to improve enforcement of the good laws already in place.

Despite the disappointment in coverage from CR, the Today Show coverage at least attempted to be balanced, as Lauer not only asked Metcalf about the extent to which these listed ingredients are available and in products at great enough quantities to be dangerous, but he also said NBC reached out to CRN and then read a statement from the trade group on the show. However, while admitting most people take vitamins with no problems, Nancy Snyderman, NBCs chief medical editor, refuted the notion the dietary supplement industry has been fighting for more legislation. The bar is significantly lower for oversight, and that is a Congressional issue, she said. Congress enacted legislation, frankly, that has allowed the supplement world to operate at lower bar than the pharmaceutical world.

How to handle the media

While any one industry will never completely control all media, there is obvious value in tracking the trends in coverage of the industry and highlighting factual errors or misinformation when the time is right. For the dietary-supplement industry, it can seem like a constant fight to proclaim legitimacy, not to trumpet the safety, efficacy and quality of products from responsible companies.

One of the obvious methods anyone can use when disagreeing with a certain article or a media outlets overall coverage is to write a letter to the editor. I know that after the Consumer Reports article appeared, Sidney J. Stohs, Ph.D., and Harry G. Preuss, M.D., wrote a letter to the editor, providing a scientific analysis of why bitter orange does not belong on the publications Dirty Dozen list, Green reported. Dr. Stohs has tried to follow up by telephone several times and was told that Consumer Reports gets thousands of letters, which are handled by editorial, and, no, he could not speak to anyone in editorial. This is a credentialed scientist, not a company with a vested interest.

Blatman reminded, in addition to letters to editors, industry can also make use of the ability to comment on online articles. We suggest rational and reasonable comments will be most effective, she said. Comments might not reach the editors, but this becomes a way for experts to put themselves and their information into the article, in a sense, as readers can then engage in discussion of the points the expert brings up. Ullman has been particularly prolific in leaving comments in online articles that contain factually inaccuracies about dietary supplements, especially when it involves the topic of regulation.

Companies also have the option to issue a formal statement or press release in reaction to a news story that affects their business. However, it could be a case of pick your battles, as Shelton advised there are definitely times when its better not to respond to a negative story. Sometimes a response just makes the story bigger and extends its life span, when it might disappear quickly otherwise, she said. But its also very smart to develop a response and have it ready to go if the story has longer legs than you anticipate (or hope). She has worked with clients to plan a response strategy and write a news release, internal messaging and a website statement, but then didnt end up needing to use them. However, often enough we have had to respond, and it was crucial to have all the pieces ready to go. Otherwise, you can lose the opportunity to tell your side of the story.

It is important for industry to tell its own story, by placing positive stories in the press. Due to the powers of sensationalism, negative stories will always stand out, but flooding the airwaves with the good stories on supplements can counterbalance some of the negative press. This is not as hard as one might think.

The media will always find the one company doing something illegal or dangerous, Blatman said. But seeing the industry as a whole being responsible? I think [the media outlets] are open to that. She reported since its launch, CRNs Life Supplemented PR campaign has managed to place more than 4,000 positive stories in the media and gives the industry a story to tell, versus just always responding to negative press, which rarely nets more than a quote or two in coverage. In essence, this gives us a chance to define things as we see them, such as how supplements are a piece of a healthy lifestyle and how consumers should use supplements responsibly.

Blatman noted the Life Supplemented campaign has been successful in placing stories in major outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, Prevention and Redbook. As they have more positive stories to report on, the cream will rise to the top, she assured.

Green also touted the benefits of taking a proactive, positive approach rather than just reacting and responding to bad press and inaccuracies. We have been disappointed in the industrys response to the Consumer Reports article, Green lamented, noting responses have mostly entered on the safety record of dietary supplements, in general. But no one has truly defended the ingredients indicted in the article. I would love to see our industry associations investigate the 12 maligned ingredients and issue their own reports. In the meantime, well keep plugging away at the negative press, using 15 years of scientific research to support the safety and efficacy of Advantra Z.

To further support the efforts to increase good stories on supplements, Blatman urged companies to engage in self-regulation to give the media fewer opportunities to criticize; supporting industry efforts like CRNs grants to the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau, an initiative to increase scrutiny of supplement advertising by encouraging companies to alert NAD about any questionable ads. Further, she emphasized the importance of companies investing in science in their businesses as another way to give media less negative news to report.

NPA has been quite active in boosting the scientific credibility of the industry via its certification programs, including its GMP (good manufacturing practices) offering. The group agrees the industry needs to continue to share the facts, correct falsehoods and tell the success story that is the natural products industry. The negative press may not be hurting salesdiscerning consumers remain committed and therefore sales continue to rise, Gay said, adding hes talked to numerous retailers who report their customers see through the negative press. But it can dissuade some people from becoming regular customers, and it can be used by the industrys opponents on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to push damaging legislation.

Unfortunately the press sometimes is mightier than the facts, and the influence of a crescendo of negative articles can become hurtful to the industry. However, tilting the scenario to different sides can provide a fresh prospective and opportunities both proactive and reactive. The key to limiting the damage and generating some favorable press is to remain vigilant and utilize all the tools available, from letters and comments to press releases and placing increased numbers of positive stories. 

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