Q&A with Chris Abell, Ketchum Public Affairs

Public AffairsQ: Opportunity on a plate: How can brands protect their reputations when under so much political and regulatory scrutiny?

A: Whether it’s the horsemeat scandal, alcohol pricing or lobby groups such as Action on Sugar, arguably there has never been a time when the food and drink industry has been under greater political and regulatory scrutiny.  A growing list of rules and regulations can have a negative impact on the bottom line, but with the right public affairs and PR programmes companies can act to address the issues and mitigate the risks.  In fact, savvy firms can seize the moment and enhance their reputation, social credentials and their bottom line.

Shouldn’t lobbying be kept separate from PR and marketing communications?

There’s a strong argument for integrating public affairs into communications and marketing activity. Businesses often shy away from speaking directly to politicians, preferring to leave that sort of interaction to a specialised team at corporate HQ.  But why not treat politicians just like any other group of stakeholders? The same methods and channels you use to communicate with consumers can and should be used to reach politicians; politicians consume similar media, are exposed to the same advertising as everyone else and hear the views of friends and family just like the rest of us.

It’s not that arguments presented in a one-to-one Westminster meeting or evidence shared in a consultation aren’t important – they are, they’re crucial; it’s just that a politician’s view of a product category or brand is just as likely to have been formed already, prior to this.  And when politicians have the power to regulate a product out of business, it pays at least to consider them before, say, launching an ad campaign. Think about public affairs goals as one part of the objectives of brand and product promotion, not just something to be handled by a dedicated cluster back at base.

How can we be sure we’re offering a genuine solution to the issue?

There’s no denying that in the UK and other developed markets we face significant health issues as a result of diet and lifestyle. We may look for answers from politicians, but they themselves are acutely aware of budgetary pressures on the public purse. This is where industry can step in, help shape policy and minimise negative impacts. One of the best examples of this is the UK Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal – where firms have worked with government and health stakeholders to build a set of voluntary pledges to reformulate products or support healthier lifestyles.

Our recommendation is to be proactive and provide an evidence-based, workable solution to a policy conundrum; it could be a pledge to lower salt levels, a change in marketing strategy or the giving of financial support to a school sports programme. Make sure, though, that your action is achievable and that you follow it through. With proper monitoring and horizon scanning companies should be aware that they, their products or their sector will be targeted by a health lobby and the inevitable threat of further regulation. Engaging early, pre-empting an issue and coming up with a genuine solution to it, should certainly pay off.

If you have a specific issue or need more detailed advice, please contact our Food Team here at Ketchum. We have decades of experience in food across brand marketing, healthcare, corporate, digital and public affairs communications.