British soft drinks industry caught out in deception

Congratulations to Mishal Hussain for catching out the British Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington as he tried to mislead the public by using one of the oldest PR deception tricks in the book.

Partington, the director general of the BSDA, was appearing on the Today programme –  – to argue against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks.

This is virtually the only measure to survive from the government’s original plan to have a major crackdown on junk-food; the policy has now been reduced from a “game changing moment” to the “start of a conversation.”

During the interview with Hussain, in which he tried to represent his members, which include Coca Cola and PepsiCo as victims, Partington talked about research that proved his case; his initial statement did not mention that the BDSA had commissioned the research – indeed taken on its own would leave the impression that it had no involvement in it.

It was only when he was pressed that Partington was forced to admit the BDSA’s involvement.

The exchange went like this.

Partington said that the sugary drinks tax “will cost 4,000 job losses. This analysis is based on a rigorous academic study by Oxford Economics and we know from experience in Mexico that the tax there has simply resulted in a calorie reduction of six calories on an overall diet of 6,000 calaories.”

Hussain then asked: “Is that the report you commissioned.”

Partington: “We did indeed commission it and it is right that we should study and analyse the impact.”

Lest anyone think that Partington’s initial failure to mention the BDSA’s involvement was a slip of the tongue, they should look at the BDSA’s press release when the report was published. If there was a mention, it was so deep in the sub-text it escaped me.

Presenting commissioned reports as independent research is one of the oldest tricks in the corporate presentatation book. If you want to see another example, look at the way Energy UK, the gas industry’ trade association, presents research carried out on its behalf.

I should make clear that I am not saying here such research automatically lacks integrity – though it is very rare for such research to contradict publicly the interests of the person commissioning it.

All I do suggest is that for research to be credible the organisation commissioning it should identify itself prominently. It is equally wrong – however much companies and lobby groups may argue to the contrary – to label any commissioned research as independent.

The one certainty is that we are going to see and hear quite a lot of Partington as the debate on sugar taxes and junk-food intensifies.

And it is worth noting that he represents a trade association rather than a specific company. Over the last 15 years or so the number of trade associations has grown like topsy and their role has changed dramatically from a discreet representative of their industry to aggressive lobbyist.

In part this reflects the media demands but it is also very convenient for the companies. For people like Partington will never talk in specifics (he won’t for example talk about anything directly to do with an individual company). This enables an industry to appear open and also present its argument without really having to answer a direct question about what its companies do.

If you doubt how prevalent this has become, look at my analysis of this.


It is not for me to state here whether or not a sugar tax will contribute to the nation’s health. All I do know is that one should be extremely suspicious about the integrity of any industry that cowers behind its trade association and is anything less than totally open about the research it commissions.


Leadsom continues to exploit motherhood row


Andrea Leadsom is continuing to make the maximum mileage out of her remarks that being a mother made her a better candidate for the premiership than her rival Theresa May, who has no children.

As I say in my blog yesterday

Leadsom’s comments in an interview with The Times were coolly calculated, designed to raise an issue that would run well with the section of the Tory party she was trying to attract, give her the publicity boost that a less well known candidate needs and deflect attentions away from questions about the accuracy of her CV.

She – aided by some of the most skilful political PR operators in the country – is now using the criticism of her remarks to present herself as the outsider who is the victim of establishment dirty tricks.

Leadsom wants to ensure that the message on motherhood is still out there while maintaining the moral high ground; and in the last 24 hours she has used two tactics to do so.

First, we have seen the classic non-apology apology, so beloved of corporate executives. Leadsom appears to be expressing regret when she tells the Daily Telegraph that she had “already said to Theresa how very sorry I am for any hurt I have caused.”

Note that she is not apologising for the comments but simply any offence they might cause – and as May’s aides noted, they did not think Leadsom had meant to cause offence. So Leadsom is apologising for something she had not done.

Leadsom then insisted that she did not believe motherhood should play a part in the leadership campaign – though it was her choice, as the interview transcripts have shown, to raise the subject in the first place.

And despite the clear evidence to the contrary, she is still insisting that the article in The Times “said the opposite of what I said and believe.”

This is a key element of the second element of the strategy – that is to present Leadsom as a victim and outsider, who the Tory establishment is trying to destroy.

So she attacks The Times for gutter journalism and says she feels “under attack, under enormous pressure – it has been shattering;” meanwhile her supporter tour the television studios, complaining about dirty tricks.

Former Tory leader and keen supporter Ian Duncan Smith has says there has been “a lot of sniping, a kind of black-ops operation to denigrate her reputation.”

The strategy is clearly working. She is keeping herself in the headlines, ensuring she is seen as the outsider and victim while controlling the agenda.

And those senior Tories who want to criticise her are not now quite certain what to do. In an excellent article in The Times today, Clare Foges, David Cameron’s speech writer from 2011-15, warns that “Vilifying Leadsom will only make her stronger.”

She points out that “anyone hoping to halt the progress of Leadsom should be wary of piling in too heavily” as this would reinforce he position as the anti-establishment candidate; as political experience is complicit in a stitch up against the people, anyone lacking that experience is “bestowed with valuable outsider status;” and that any attempt to caricature Leadsom as an extremist, liar and homophobe will “only underline her underdog status in a way that may appeal to some Conservative party members.”

The coming day will show if and how May’s advisers and supporters can develop a strategy to regain the initiative that Leadsom has so cleverly seized.



Leadsom uses Trump-style tactics

When Andrea Leadsom told The Times that being a mother gave her the edge on her rival for the Tory party leadership, the childless Theresa May, the general reaction was to suggest that she had made a blunder which made it less likely that she would win.

That response could not be more wrong. Now that The Times has released the transcript and the tape of the interview it is clear that these were measured, calculated answers designed to generate the response they got.

Don’t forget that Leadsom is apparently receiving public relations advice from Lord Bell, who masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s most successful campaigns, and Nick Wood, one of the sharpest political PR men around Westminster. They would not have let her go into this interview without carefully planned answers on this subject.

Her comments clearly indicate that Donald Trump style campaigning – where you can get away with the most extreme, unpleasant and outlandish comments that more establishment candidates would not dare to – has arrived in British politics.

Let’s look at exactly what she said. She started by saying: “I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.”

She continued by saying that having children kept her focused. “It means you don’t want a downturn, but, never mind, ten years hence it will be all fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

She then said: “I think when you are thinking about the issues that other people have you worry about your kids’ exam results, what direction their careers are taking, what we are going to eat on Sunday.”

Two points on this are decisive. First she did not have to make the second half of her statement. She could have closed off the answer by saying that parenthood made no difference to the relative abilities of herself and May to be leaders.

Second, her initial comment that it would be “horrible” to make the distinction between herself and Theresa has no value because she went to do precisely what she said would be “horrible.” It is best to see this as a clever phrasing to allow her to pretend righteous indignation when the story appeared.

So why did she do this?

First, there is the lesson from Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination in the United States. His campaign was full of offensive remarks that his rivals were convinced would destroy his support. In fact they seemed to have the opposite effect.

His remarks ensured that he was always in the headlines and, being relatively unknown as a politician, made him the centre of the debate. He came over as a plain-speaking outsider, who represented real people. This is what Mrs Leadsom is trying to do – and making a few remarks about family life won’t do her campaign any harm.

You can be sure that her media-managers will be all too aware of how effective Trump’s campaign and be eager to see how it works in this country.

Second, the row that followed the article and the response of many senior Tories has helped reinforce her chosen image as the outsider. She accused The Times of gutter journalism, helping her to present it as part of an establishment attempt to stop her winning. Likewise those Tories who condemned her could be presented by implication as part of the same attempt to exclude her.

The success of this attempt to create a campaign of the outsider taking on the power of the Westminster elite was demonstrated by the first sentence in the lead story in today’s Sunday Times.

“The Tory establishment launched a concerted attempt to derail Andrea Leadsom’s leadership bid yesterday…..”

There could not be a better way of encapsulating her campaign had her media managers written the headline themselves. This was a triumph by Lord Bell and Mr Wood.

Third, this was a very effective way of deflecting attention away from the questions about her CV, which had dominated newspaper headlines for the previous 48 hours. An argument about her family life is much safer ground than one about her CV, which casts doubts on her integrity.

And finally, this it is a good issue for her in creating her persona with the Tory party members who will have the final vote on the leadership. There is still a significant number who are suspicious of women who do not have children and it will reinforce their determination to support her.

In the short term, this Trump-style strategy seems to have worked extremely. Mrs Leadsom can now present herself as the establishment-persecuted outsider who has a special reason to care about families.

And you can bet that her media advisers will sampling opinion to see how her remarks have gone down with Tory supporters to see if the gains from making strong comments that upset the party hierarchy outweigh the risks.

If they conclude this, watch out for some more of the same.



Are the producers hijacking healthy food labelling?


Mars was widely praised when it announced that it would label some of its food products ‘occasional,’ meaning they should only be eaten once a week

But is this a new health initiative, as Mars and its supporters claim, or just a very clever public relations-driven strategy?

The announcement certainly generated the headlines Mars wanted to see. The company was seen as “brave” and “stepping up to the plate” – even the critics of industrial food producers gave it a grudging welcome.

However there is an alternative explanation.

If a company puts the word “occasional” on a product label, it can go on selling it with the same levels of salt and sugar, and insist it is the responsibility of the consumer to use it less frequently.

Just as Mars have done this with some of their Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s range, so have Premier Foods with their Sharwood’s hoisin sauce; they say it is not designed for consumption “every day” and the high level of sugar is “clearly labelled”.

And Tesco say their food “is clearly labelled with its nutritional content so customers can make informed choices about what to buy.”

This may be the start of a trend. After years of resisting moves for stricter labelling, the food industry may be starting to use the process to its own advantage by arguing that what it puts on its products passes responsibility to the consumer.

There is more of a whiff of the lawyer in this. As I mentioned in my earlier blog

a quick google search will reveal a long list of lawyers offering to help producers comply with the law – you will search in vain for them mentioning the words “healthy food.” And there are plenty of software companies providing the same service.

There is a further problem about the Mars initiative – keeping check on what everyone is eating.

The concept of informed choice and occasional use only makes sense if everyone in a household is sharing the same meal for at least most of the time. How many households eat together for three meals a day seven days a week – flat sharers do so even less frequently. When you drop in to see a friend, do you say you have eaten your quota of occasional use sauces for the week? How do you know if your staff canteen has food with occasional use sauces?

In reality, a household will need to keep detailed records of each meal consumed by each member to make these “informed choices” – maybe someone will invent a computer programme to do the work.

It looks to me as if the food producers want to win a few decent headlines and pass the buck to the consumer, while ensuring that their their sales or profit margins are unaffected.

Food labelling is not enough

The demand for more food labelling is once again growing following a couple of recent initiatives. But I remain unconvinced that – on its own – this approach can deliver healthier eating.

The first initiative came from Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. She argues that products should have a label stating the exercise needed to burn off the calories created by the foods. This, she says, will help people maintain a healthy weight.

Then the food manufacturer Mars warns that some of its sauces are so high in salt, fat and sugar that they should be eaten only once a week.

It is hard to disagree with Ms Cramer’s advice and Mars’s admission is certainly welcome – though the cynic in me wonders if Mars would have done this if it really thought there would be a significant impact on sales.

But, as an outside observer, I do have reservations about the emphasis on labelling.

First adding ever more rules and regulations is a job creation scheme for the expensive parasite trades, as any quick google search of ‘food regulation’ will show.

There, you will find lawyers and software companies offering to help clients meet minimum legal requirements. Their emphasis is on complying with the law rather than providing healthy food!!

Secondly, I wonder how effective labelling is on its own. When one set of rules fails to change behaviour, the labelling lobby respond by demanding even stronger warnings and advice rather than asking whether a more broadly based strategy would be more successful.

Surely experts like Ms Cramer need to look beyond their own bunker – particularly when they appear in the media.

The interviews she gave about her latest initiative contained lots of headline grabbers – for example that it takes about 43 minutes to run off the calories created by eating a quarter of a large pizza.

But nowhere did she suggest that the healthier option in many cases was to try the home-made option.

Surely the best way to ensure you are not stuffing yourself full of fattening salt and sugar is not to ration your consumption of Dolmio but make the tomato sauce yourself – which is hardly difficult. Instead of ‘occasional’ use, as Mars recommends, the healthiest option is ‘never’.

Ms Cramer’s approach illustrates the way in which those who take on the food industry seem focused on their area of expertise, while the supermarkets operate a much more coherent strategy.

Sometimes it appears that investigative journalists, food labellers, scientists and marketing specialists are too happy ploughing their own furrows rather than working together to challenge the supermarkets with a cohesive strategy.

If you doubt the shared interest of the supermarkets, look at the way the promote themselves. In my local Tesco, there appears to be many more industrial products on sale than ingredients.

Yet the shop has EASY, FRESH and CHOICE, emblazoned several times on its external walls.

The supermarkets have seized ownership of these words. The goal must be to reclaim those words for home-made food and change the perceptions the food industry fights so effectively to present.

Of course this includes examining the contents of their products, but it also means challenging the image they present of themselves.

Perhaps a first step would be to persuade customers – by repeating the message time and again – that they should ask this simple question when they go round their supermarket shelves: “If I made this meal myself would it be cheaper cheaper, healthier, tastier and as convenient.”

The answer won’t always be yes because we all have busy lives. But if we get into the habit of making our own meals more often, then there will be less need for us to worry too much about the contents notes on the product labels.

Home-made is the real convenience food


The research carried out by Zoe Harcombe on the conflicts of interest of those set up to advise on changes to the ‘eatwell plate’ (what we should eat to have a well-balanced diet) is very revealing

By analysing the other interests of the group’s members she shows how determined the supermarkets and food industry are to control over any decisions that restrict what they put in our food.

Her research also reminds us to be sceptical about all those organisations – not just in the food industry – with soft friendly sounding names which disguise the reality that they are lobbies for commercial interests.

In my blogs over the last year, I have highlighted when alarm bells should ring.

Here are a couple of examples.

First the wonderful phrase that one hears so often: “We have commissioned independent research.” If you commission something, its reports cannot be independent. Have you ever seen this sort of research producing results that embarrass the sponsor?

Secondly the people I call secret allies

These are a mix of academics, consultants, research institutes. Always double check to see if academics have a private commercial business whose interests are helped by their research: also whether consultants have commercial clients whose interests their research endorses; and check who is funding the research institutes.

Thirdly – and this brings us back to the food industry, but does apply elsewhere – distrust any organisation with a name that oozes integrity – it probably supports the exact opposite of what the name implies.

And the classic example of this is the way food products are made to sound nicer and friendlier. Take the fascinating research by Joanna Blythman into the way E numbers have been replaced by wholesome-sounding ingredients.

And, most recently, look at the Guardian’s analysis of the decision by supermarkets to launch 76 lines with fictitious farm names.

(How weird it is that supermarkets are creating mythical places for the origins of our food at the very time consumers want to know more about where their food comes from)

How are all these organisations – particularly the supermarkets and those in the food industry – able to get away with this?

The main reason is surely that while they claim to be in competition, their strategies are all variations on a similar theme. They want us to buy products rather than ingredients; and they do so by delivering a clear message that their products are healthier, cheaper, easier to prepare and tastier than anything we make ourselves.

In contrast to this coherent strategy there is what appears to me, as an outsider, as a disunity of purpose.

I don’t want for one moment to understate the skill and often personal bravery of those who expose what the food industry does. But they sometimes seem more focused on their own area of expertise, whether it is labelling, salt, sugar etc.

The power of the supermarkets and food industry can’t be beaten until every analysis of what they do challenges their core marketing strategy.

For example:

Healthier: food scientists rightly call for better labelling. But shouldn’t they also add that the best way to know what you are eating is to cook with your own ingredients.

Cheaper: I doubt if supermarkets would focus on marketing products if they could make a similar margin by selling ingredients. But, perhaps those columns comparing the merits of products sold by the different supermarkets could include the home-made equivalent.

Easier to prepare: why don’t more recipe books follow the example of Mary Berry who, in one recipe book, includes notes on what to prepare in advance and what you can freeze.

Tastier: Would supermarkets invent the names of farms etc if they felt their products could stand judgement on taste?

Of course most people eat food products from time to time – and there are some products which are hard for journeyman cooks like me – like ravioli – to replicate. And I am not offering to smoke my own fish.

But no-one should be conned into buying a ragu sauce when it can, if necessary, be prepared in advance and frozen.

Surely the way ahead is to persuade to ask this question when they go to the supermarket: if I made this myself, would it be cheaper, healthier, tastier and easier to prepare.

It is to reclaim the phrase “convenience food” from the industrial producers.

We should all endorse Joanna Blythman’s message that there is always time to cook.

Is McEnroe really helping Sharapova’s drug defence


Were John McEnroe’s comments on Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test as supportive of her as much of the media appears to believe? A close reading of what he actually said suggests that, far from being helpful, he was – intentionally or otherwise – undermining her case.

The article in today’s Times of London was characteristic of those who decided he was backing Sharapova. The headline stated: ‘McEnroe defends Sharapova and says he would have taken drug’

In the first paragraph of the story, tennis correspondent Barry Flatman writes: ‘John McEnroe is not renowned for his compassion towards other competitors but the outspoken former player has defended Maria Sharapova after she admitted to taking a banned drug and said he would have used it.’

But, a careful look at what McEnroe says provides evidence that his ‘defence’ of her actions has done much more damage to her case than the comments of most of her critics.

Her case depends on a rigid adherence to a simple narrative; that she took meldonium occasionally under medical supervision to address heart problems and because of a family history of diabetes; and that she made a “huge mistake” in failing to realise that the drug had gone on to the banned list.

McEnroe’s words cast doubt on both elements of this narrative.

By saying it was acceptable to use a prescription drug as a performance enhancer even if it was developed for other medical uses, he is, at the very least, raising the possibility that she could have used the drug for this purpose.

Look at his words as he insisted he would have used the drug if it had been available in his playing days. “If a drug is legal? That is like a no-brainer. I mean, are you kidding?…. People have been looking since the beginning of time for an edge, and you’re constantly looking for these things in any shape or form.”

He is stating that it is acceptable to do things that her lawyers and public relations people are insisting she has not done.

Nor is McEnroe helpful when he comments on her argument that she was unaware of the change in rules. “It would be hard to believe that no-one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself had no idea that this happened,” he said.

So far from supporting her narrative he has, intentionally or not, done an extremely good job in undermining it. And he has added credibility to those who don’t accept her version – as opposed to the legality – of her version of events.

Of course, it may be that, as her supporters hope, there is incontrovertible evidence that she only took these drugs for medical purposes.

But, even if that is the case, she still has to answer why she embarked on a public relations and legal strategy that only makes sense if she has something to hide.

Sharapova’s latest tricks to avoid drug charge

The battle to establish blame for Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has intensified as the latest elements of her strategy become clear.

See my earlier blogs to understand the way she launched her counter-attack.

As her legal and public relations campaign gains momentum, the aim now is to define the precise question that will be asked by the public, her fellow tennis professionals, the tennis authorities and, most importantly, her sponsors.

The questions her public relations managers want to avoid are these: why was she using a drug for a decade that many others were clearly taking to enhance their performances? This of course was the reason it was banned. Should she not have been more careful when deciding to take such a controversial drug? Is the drug so important to her health that she will have to continue taking it?

She may be one of the few people not taking the drug for performance enhancing purposes – but it still raises the question why so many athletes at the peak of their fitness seemed to be suffering from illnesses that could only be treated with this drug.

In other words, while using the drug meldonoium until the start of this year was technically legal, did her motives stink?

She may have perfectly legitimate answers but it is clear that her minders want to divert attention away from this question.

Instead they want to drag the issue back to her initial defence which was that she was responsible for making a “huge mistake” which is much easier for them to argue with the tennis authorities.

The problem with sustaining this defence is that it is hugely implausible. As many commentators have noted, Sharapova has a strong team of advisers with expertise in public relations, every other aspect of her public image and of course her physical health.

It seems almost inconceivable that she and her team could allow such an error to occur.

And the strategy used in recent days shows that her team realised how weak this position was and that it needed to be backed up by a robust additional tactics.

Some of the elements of this strategy are in place. At its heart is the attempt to discredit everyone who might try to hold her to account.

Her latest Facebook statement is another masterpiece of public relations spin. She reiterates that her comments are all part of her open and honest strategy and she says she has no excuses.

However she also spends several paragraphs providing excuses for failing to be aware the drug was banned from the start of the year. “The communications? They were buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts,” she wrote.

“In order to be aware of this ‘warning’, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read.

“I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

As others examine the communications, we will discover how legitimate her complaint is – but for now it serves as a clever attempt to explain the “big mistake.”

A second element is to make a generalised attack on her critics – a well-known diversionary tactic used by any organisation under pressure.

She condemned “distorted and exaggerated” reporting; most interestingly she denied taking meldonium every day.

I have looked at a lot of the coverage and I don’t recall anyone saying she was taking the drug every day – but just in case someone did, one can say for certain that this was hardly one of the major allegations.

In fact the only person I remember citing the allegation was her lawyer John J Haggerty. He said he wanted to “disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

It is very clever; deny an allegation that, if it was made at all, is totally absurd; create the impression that is a widely-made allegation by denying it several times. And then argue that this probably non-existent allegation is evidence of “distorted and exaggerated” reporting.

This passive aggressive defence (using an image of injured innocence and human eroor to soften a hard-nosed legal strategy) has been as effective as it possibly could be.

And I don’t know whether Sharapova used the drug in all innocence or was aware that it could give her a performance advantage if used in certain quantities.

But the way she is conducting her campaign – particularly the mix of PR spin and legal aggression – mean that I wouldn’t find her case convincing if I was in a jury hearing their evidence.