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ConsumerLab and the making of a media star

Before my present incarnation as a trade journalist in the dietary supplements industry, I was a newspaperman. I spent more than 25 years working at daily newspapers until my last employer in the news biz, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, folded its tent in early 2009.

So I have an insight into how someone like Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab, can become a go-to source for reporters in the mainstream media when they are reporting about the natural products industry.

First, a little groundwork: Newspapers, even big ones, do not have banks of breathless fact checkers; they don't have librarians to do research; they don't have test kitchens. If you're a reporter you're lucky these days if they pay for your cell phone.

What they do have is space to fill with news, even in this era of severe industry contraction. Newspapers are smaller than they used to be, but the size of newsrooms staffs shrank faster than the space did, and they are increasingly posting stories online as soon as they are written. Reporters have to bang stuff out to fill the insatiable maw that is a daily publication.

Pressed for time

So almost every reporter you will meet from now until the possible death of the U.S. newspaper industry is going to be pressed for time. Gone are the days when a reporter could work a beat, such as being a paper's health or medical reporter, and spend time gathering background, developing sources and getting the lay of the land. That system could produce stories of high quality. As an (almost) lifelong newsman, it pains me to say this, but news is increasingly becoming a commodity, and shrinking ad revenues won’t pay for that kind of quality any more.

These days, a story about dietary supplements or natural products may be written by a reporter who may never have written such a story before, or who may have received the assignment only earlier that day, with a deadline set for, say, 5 p.m.

When ConsumerLab issues a report such as the recent one it did on valerian supplements, it gets attention. The headlines of such reports are done in a newspaper style, earning instant street cred with daily journalists. And say what you will about ConsumerLab’s business model, part of it revolves around getting publicity, and Cooperman and his staff are very good at it. He is willing to talk (which many companies in the dietary supplements testing business are not), he’s quotable and he has hard data with which to spoon-feed reporters. So when someone like Cooperman has a track record of being a good source, one on whom a reporter can rely to give a good quote before deadline, he gets cited and quoted. And he gets the modern news model. Controversy, and stories about mistakes, abuse and malfeasance are inherently interesting to news outlets; it’s a quick hook on which to hang a story. “Nine o’clock and all’s well,” is the script for the town crier, not a reporter.

Building credibility

What’s the recourse for those in the natural products business who feel that ConsumerLab might not be the industry’s best ambassador? Merely reacting to what a ConsumerLab report says might get you quoted in a newspaper article, but it’s a defensive strategy at best.

Better to identify those reporters (and their editors, if you can) who have written these stories in the past and try to engage them in dialogue. Respectfully point out the issues many in the industry have with the way ConsumerLab does business and how it chooses its testing parameters. The more legwork you can do for a reporter, the more likely it is that they will view your information favorably. The next time ConsumerLab issues a scathing report, remember that the reporter who wrote about the last report may have already read this new one. The more trust your company or organization can build beforehand, the more likely that reporter is to give your views similar weight to those of ConsumerLab.

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