Market Insights: The Complicated Ephedra Crisis

By Sheldon Baker
[email protected]

I don't always agree with my business partner. But when the chips are down, we always pull together to get through a difficult situation.

Such is the case with the ephedra crisis. The ephedra issues provide yet another chance for the dietary supplement industry to come together.

Public announcements regarding ephedra products purchased by athletes and consumers that may present a health risk created a crisis and generated negative reactions from consumers, members of the community, government, and the media, as well as the dietary supplement industry.

The ephedra issue is a complicated one that could have been helped by a public relations program initiated from the dietary supplement industry.

Rather than take the initiative and step-up to the plate with its big hitters when Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler took fatally ill from using ephedra, a weak smattering of public response was generated from ephedra manufacturers. A complete, ongoing strategy was needed. This segment of the natural products industry, with a billion dollar-plus market, could afford to spend a couple million dollars to save their sinking ship and make the industry look good at the same time.

Manufacturers and sellers of products formulated with ephedra still must decide on a plan to reassure its target markets that they are taking action to address ephedra product safety concerns. If handled properly, there still exists an opportunity to take a positive stance ¨C to educate consumers, government regulators, media and other target audiences about the safe use of ephedra products and how ephedra manufacturers and marketers are taking responsible action to ensure a safe and effective product. The situation may look bleak, but the recent RAND Corporation report to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found just two adverse reports could actually be attributed to ephedra.

A few days ago, I learned that Marc Ullman of Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman, LLP, a New York City-based law firm, had attended a presentation by U.S. Representative Henry Waxman at the Food and Drug Law Institute in New York. According to Ullman, Waxman stated that the FDA is in possession of evidence demonstrating that 100 deaths were ¡°probably caused¡± by ephedra.

As Ullman noted in a letter to Waxman, the statement appeared to conflict with the conclusions of the RAND Corporation study of ephedra that reported a comprehensive review of the public literature and all evidence in the possession of the FDA that revealed only two fatal ¡°sentinel events¡± involving ephedra. Ullman's letter also asked Waxman to identify the 98 cases where ephedra ¡°probably caused¡± fatal adverse events.

The RAND report also noted that a sentinel event does not imply a proven cause and effect relationship between the ephedra supplement and the adverse event.

There's still time to rollout the PR machine. The issues surrounding ephedra call for several public relations and publicity tactics. Initially, a public relations strategy should be developed that reflects the industry's key messages.

The use of credible spokespersons, a celebrity and medical expert, to take the ephedra message to the masses would be at the top of the list. A retired professional athlete who is also a medical doctor or may have some government ties would also be ideal. A celebrity always opens media doors, especially during this period of war (both ephedra and Iraq), when valuable broadcast time is at a premium. Ephedra is still news.

The cable news networks are still wall-to-wall with war coverage and the Broadcast networks are cutting in with sporadic updates when needed. They are also running expanded additions of their nightly newscasts and pre-empting certain programming with special coverage. So where do you go with the ephedra message first? In the U.S. we are notorious for the time spent in our cars, listening to talk radio.

During the first month, 30 or more radio interviews are a goal that could be achieved. In addition, develop a radio media tour for drive time listeners reaching a minimum of 15-20 stations. Through 50 radio interviews in about one month, a positive message can be put into motion.

Target Spanish-language broadcasting. Through Spanish-language radio, you can easily reach an audience of 27 million people that spills over into the English-speaking community. Locating a credible Spanish language spokesperson, who could provide meaningful sound bites, would result in key industry exposure.

In addition there's a capability to distribute short radio news packages that could air over 500 radio news/talk stations. You do the math, but potentially that could add up to 50 million people we can reach through this medium.

There are some positive signs that many television stations are starting to entertain satellite media tours and are willing to review story ideas that pertain to health, as they realize the war cannot dominate their coverage for a protracted period of time.

Assuming the conflict with Iraq has stabilized by June, ephedra manufacturers could produce and distribute their own story through a Video News Release. Depending on the production, news angle and distribution path determined at that time, you could probably generate a large viewing audience reaching nearly 200 media markets and a minimum of 5-10 million viewers.

In June, comes the NNFA Marketplace in Las Vegas. Ephedra manufacturers and the various industry trade groups could unite at this function. A news conference to announce new and positive developments gives the industry as a whole an opportunity to reach a wide-range of health trade and mass-market media who will be attending this show.

Why start a public relations campaign now? It makes ephedra manufacturers and the dietary supplement industry look good and may help keep the ephedra issue from causing fatal blows to DSHEA.

According to Suzanne Shelton, representative of Citizens For Health, the FDA does have the authority to regulate ephedra, as the law currently exists. As a result, we must take this issue seriously.

Public relations professionals are supposed to put a good spin on what appears to be a negative situation. The main focus should be education and to this end, can be accomplished by launching an aggressive public relations program supported by a group of corporate leaders to enlighten the community and public at large.

Through public relations, you can produce, disseminate and place media interviews and editorial that focuses on the safety, education and responsible manufacturing practices regarding ephedra. The goal is to retain the existing core dietary supplement customer and educate the mainstream consumer and media for future industry growth.

Most consumers view a positive television, radio, newspaper or magazine story about a company or its products, that is created by public relations professionals, as providing third-party credibility and endorsement.

The media can be your friend. The goal is to control the message ¨C to feed the media and public with specific information that you want them to hear, understand and believe.

There's still time to turn damage control into image control.

Sheldon Baker is senior partner of Baker-Dillon Public Relations and is a 25-year public relations veteran. His firm represents leading supplement manufacturers in the natural products industry. He can be reached at (800) 570-1262 or by email at [email protected].

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