Media Strategy

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Public Relations

To mould public opinion, using the media to promote positions favourable to the industry
WHO Definitions of Tobacco Industry Tactics for resisting effective tobacco control, 2009.

The industry has long tried to use the media to further its own ends. The more discredited its voice has become with the public, the more it has been forced to use third parties to put its message across. This said, all tobacco companies still employ press officers who issue news releases, hold press conferences and organise media tours supplying reports and data to journalists, specifically financial journalists.
However, other media strategies include:

In-House Seminars

Less visible are the industry contacts with media behind the scenes. In March 2000, the BBC World Service organised a smoking presentation seminar, entitled ‘To Smoke or Not to Smoke’ providing a stage for both the industry and the tobacco control community (ASH and the WHO).1 The BBC’s thank you note (signed by the World Service Education Projects Manager Robert Seatter)2 to BAT’s press officer indicates that the day was a success, at least from a BAT networking perspective:

Dear Fran,

An official thank you from myself and the team of producers for the useful and illuminating presentation you gave at our recent smoking seminar! All the participants at the seminar found the day extremely fruitful in conveying the complexity and fascination of the issues, and this will, I am sure, be reflected in their radio and online work. I am certain that we will be back in contact with you in the near future for further consultation and information.

Commissioning Content

A more indirect way of media advocacy includes commissioning editorials, columns and newspaper reports by Hiring Independent Experts (one of the industry’s Third Party Techniques), or convincing editors to write such materials under their own name.

Turning Free Speech into Corporate Speech is the title of a journal paper on Philip Morris‘ efforts to influence U.S. and European journalists regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on second hand smoke. Research into the tobacco industry documents shows that Philip Morris managed to get favourable stories in the press through its PR firm Burson Marsteller in the 1990s, and even went as far as to financially support a U.S. school of journalism. Furthermore journalists associated with think tanks that were financially supported by Philip Morris wrote numerous articles critical of the EPA.

Wining and Dining

The attempt to influence editorial policy sometimes includes ‘wining and dining’ – companies under fire welcome opportunities to build or maintain good relations with editors and media owners – and politicians alike through offering free hospitality.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Much of the tobacco industry’s media strategy is about managing its reputation. Corporate Social Responsibility is of growing importance when it comes securing a ‘licence to operate’ – the acceptability of the company and the industry in the public eye. It is important to paint a positive picture, even though tobacco kills one out of two of its long-term users. The story of BAT Scholarships for Afghan girls is a good example of a tobacco company using philanthropy to boost its public image.

The Nanny State

The aim of a media strategy is twofold, to target both policymakers and the wider public with a view to influencing the public debate. The tobacco industry has aimed to shift the debate away from issues concerning smoking and health to more emotive ones. This popular – and almost populist – view attempts to frame tobacco control as government interference, or ‘the nanny state,’ as a threat to consumer freedom and individual rights.
BAT, for example, attacked the plain packaging proposals by the UK Government by suggesting that it had allies in the libertarian movement. Michael Prideaux, BAT’s Communications Director said: I think the libertarian argument resonates among people who wouldn’t normally take notice of what the tobacco industry say”. 3
Furthermore, the hijacking of the term ‘discrimination’ by the industry and its supporters, is a way of trying to reframe the debate so the tobacco industry, retailers and smokers become underdogs who are victims of excessive regulation and government invasion of personal freedom.

Online Strategy

The Internet is an increasingly popular medium to get the message out – see the separate category page on Online Strategy.

Advertisement Strategy

The threat to pull advertisements from specific media used to be a tactic to voice disapproval about editorial content, or to pressure the publication of certain reports. Tobacco industry Advertising and promotion is now seriously restricted.

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  1. BBC World Service Education To Smoke or Not to Smoke.., Tobacco Presentation Seminar, 21 March, 2000
  2. Robert Seatter, Letter to Fran Morrison, BAT press officer, 22 March 2000
  3. Christopher Thompson, “Big Tobacco Hits Out at ‘Big Mother'”, Financial Times, 7-8 April 2012, p4