Addition: The following email arrived on my doorstep on 12/13
Lou—I wanted to reach out regarding the blog posted this week “When the Media Fails to Distinguish Between PR and Advertising.” It is unclear to me who the author is, and a little disappointing that they developed a whole narrative about us out of thin air, but please share that the North American Meat Institute has no relationship with the Center for Consumer Freedom and certainly does not for the fake meat campaign. We do not know who is behind that campaign and do not engage in campaigns that are disparaging, deceptive or misleading. Our communications work is focused on transparency and sharing facts about our products and their benefits to health and wellness, communities and the world. We believe in a fair and competitive marketplace that lets consumers decide which food products make sense for them.
I hope the post can be edited to reflect that our organization is not part of that campaign. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Vice President, Sustainability
North American Meat Institute
President, National Hot Dog & Sausage Council
It might seem like I’m picking on The New York Times, pointing out on Monday that the history of Silicon Valley didn’t start with the launch of Google.
Before going further, the vast majority of my posts on The New York Times are positive and even effusive. If The New York Times had a tryout for cheerleaders over 50 years old, I would give it a go.
Still, sometimes they get it wrong.
The paper recently decided to address the meat industry’s attack on plant-based producers in the piece, “Fake Meat vs. Real Meat.”
Knowing companies like Impossible Foods have raised over $500M in venture capital, I jumped into the story which begins:
The meat industry has a warning for consumers: Beware of plant-based meat.
That is the message behind a marketing campaign by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a public relations firm whose financial supporters have included meat producers and others in the food industry. In recent weeks the group has placed full-page ads in The New York Times and other newspapers raising health concerns about plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, which are designed to look, taste and even appear to bleed like real meat.
Let me get this right. A public relations firm called “The Center for Consumer Freedom” — and I thought “The Hoffman Agency” lacked pizzazz — has created and placed full-page ads in a bunch of newspapers.
The journalist behind the story, Anahad O’Connor, has been at his craft for 15+ years, but someone might want to let him know that there’s a name for companies that create and place advertisements. They’re called advertising agencies.
Mr. O’Connor, ‘Meat’ Mr. PR
In the spirit of being thorough, I checked out the “about section” for The Center for Consumer Freedom’s website thinking the organization might wrap itself in the PR flag which caused the confusion on Mr. O’Connor’s part:
Founded in 1996, the Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices. We believe that the consumer is King. And Queen.
A growing cabal of activists has meddled in Americans’ lives in recent years. They include self-anointed “food police,” health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats …
No, that’s not the problem.
And in the course of clicking to the organization’s website, I noticed the main channels of navigation highlight advertising.
How does a smart and digital-literate journalist for The New York Times mistake this organization as a public relations company?
It ratchets up the drama in the story. By Mr. O’Connor’s way of thinking or that of his editors at The New York Times, a PR agency is lurking in the shadows with nefarious intent to fool the public.
Pulling Back the Curtain
The reality is The Center for Consumer Freedom is not a PR company or an advertising agency. The organization is an advocacy arm of trade associations like the North American Meat Institute which refers to itself as “the unified voice of meat and poultry companies.”
As you would expect, the meat companies want to throw shade on the competition, the alternative-meat products. They believe if the North American Meat Institute attacks Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the public won’t buy it because their agenda is on the table for all to see: buy meat products, not the plant-based stuff. But if the Center for Consumer Freedom attacks these same companies, it’s more effective because the public won’t see the connection to the meat industry (and who doesn’t love mom, apple pie and consumer freedom?). Ironically, The New York Times shed light on this issue a few years ago when it examined how the sugar industry set up a stand-alone organization chartered with shifting the blame of weight gain to fat in one’s diet.
Yes, it’s complicated.
The ethics of communicating behind a faux front is a topic for another day.
I only wish The New York Times piece had taken the time to explain what’s behind the Center for Consumer Freedom. While it’s true that the organization’s tactics include those that fall under the PR category — like the op-ed in The Wall Street Journal — it is not a public relations firm.