Lessons in communication strategy from Big Soda
by Fernando Quintero, Strategic Communications Specialist with Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG).
We often tell participants in our media advocacy trainings that many of the tools and techniques we teach health advocates are ones we've borrowed from tobacco control. For example, embedding memorable sound bites in messages so that audiences remember key points ("Kids need sports, not sports drinks"). Or pivoting away from tough questions or inquiries aimed at derailing the speaker ("That's an interesting point, but I'm here to talk about ...").
Tobacco control advocates taught us that we could use media advocacy to hold a powerful industry accountable for creating unhealthy environments. Their success in passing policies to reduce smoking rates has been partly the result of decades of studying Big Tobacco's playbook, anticipating the industry's arguments against regulation, and using the power of the media to reframe the issue and shape the opinions of policymakers and the public.
We're currently seeing striking similarities between Big Soda and Big Tobacco as the sugary drink industry works to combat mounting pressure from health advocates and the public at large for its major role in the national diabetes epidemic. I saw these similarities firsthand at a debate last month between Berkeley City Council member Laurie Capitelli, who is supporting a proposed penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, and Matt Rodriguez, who was representing the soda industry.
Rodriguez did his best to distract the audience from the harm that soda causes to people's health. His comments and responses were skillful, if not predictable. Advocates can use that to their advantage. Though public health advocates can't match the money industry is throwing at its efforts to deflect responsibility for the health problems its products cause, we can make sure they don't control the conversation. Knowing what the opposition is saying is key to coming up with strategic messages and responses.
The following is a partial list of communication strategies that were employed by Rodriguez at the July 28 event. Some of these are effective tools that advocates can use as part of their arsenal. Others are just plain dirty, underhanded tactics that we wouldn't suggest anyone emulate. However, we wanted to provide a brief glimpse into how big industry operates:
Poke holes in your opponent's proposed policy
Rodriguez began his comments with the claim that the proposed soda tax was "not a serious policy effort" and "not a serious attempt to deal with obesity," but rather a "political move." He noted that the tax proposal does not earmark money for health programs. (Tax measure proponents chose not to set aside proceeds from the tax for a particular program because that would require a two-thirds majority vote, thanks to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Instead the measure establishes a committee comprising city and community leaders to help funnel the funds toward children's health programs.)
Malign your opponent's proposal with short, memorable media bites
"This is a grocery tax," Rodriguez declared. "This is a record-keeping nightmare (for business owners)."
Use divisive tactics
As Big Soda did in Richmond when that city proposed a similar measure, Rodriguez injected racial and socioeconomic overtones into the debate and framed the soda tax as a regressive policy that would harm low-income communities. "Why put this on the backs of those who can least afford it?" Rodriguez asked.
Use coded language
At least one audience member noted after the debate that Rodriguez was skilled at using coded language to create racial and socioeconomic division. "If you're so serious about obesity, why not go after people in the hills?" said Rodriguez, who afterward clarified just whom he meant: "You have wealthier people who can bear that tax. You could have gone to a different source."
Highlight the ever-rising cost of living
"The cost of living in the Bay Area is high and rising," said Rodriguez. "It's a tough time to be raising prices on groceries."
Use key messengers
One of the cornerstones of BMSG's strategic messaging sessions is that the messenger is just as important as the message. People who can speak about an issue from personal experience are what we call "authentic voices" — a valuable part of any media advocacy campaign. Rodriguez made sure to include a variety of voices that were quoted in his slide presentation.
For example: "If you really think this tax will not ultimately take a toll on small businesses, then you believe in Santa Claus." -Paula Tejada, San Francisco business owner (I'm not quite sure why Rodriguez thought it necessary to use a San Francisco business owner to comment on a Berkeley tax measure).
Confuse your audience
Rodriguez stated the measure was "not well-crafted" and "riddled with exemptions," and in his best move of the day, he put up a slide presentation with several drink products and had audience members participate in an impromptu "what's taxed, what's not" game. It was a highly effective ploy as audience members struggled with identifying taxable versus non-taxable beverages.
Be prepared for tough questions
Rodriguez was asked by an audience member how much money the beverage industry would be spending to defeat the Berkeley tax measure — a reference to industry expenditures in the millions to defeat similar measures in neighboring Richmond and El Monte in southern California, as well as current efforts to defeat the San Francisco soda tax measure. "I don't know," Rodriguez skillfully responded. "It costs a lot of money to communicate with voters and businesses to clear misleading information." He went on to add: "Money doesn't buy votes. Think of Meg Whitman," the wealthy former eBay CEO who lost the California governor's race.
Rebut health claims
When the parallels between sugar and tobacco were pointed out (soda industry's communication strategy notwithstanding), Rodriguez pulled another effective sound bite out of his hat: "Cigarettes by nature are cancer-causing. There is no safe level of cigarette smoking," he said. "But you can't get second-hand soda."
Pivot away from incriminating or negative questions
When asked by an audience member whether the soda industry cares about the health of Berkeley's children, Rodriguez simply stated that he was asked to speak on the merits of the proposed policy, not the health of kids.
Do this script and these techniques sound familiar? Not only has the tobacco industry used many of these tactics, the soda industry has already gotten some practice at dusting them off. We saw similar arguments back in 2012  when the small California cities of Richmond and El Monte tried to tax soda, and we can expect to see this rhetoric again as other towns try to pass policies to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks.
But just as Rodriguez used tried and true communication tactics to try and win over audiences, health advocates can use media advocacy to fight fire with fire. Want a media bite that responds to the soda industry's continued claims that sugary drinks cause no harm?
"The only medical voice on the Big Soda side of the debate is Dr Pepper" (Thanks to Jeff Ritterman, Richmond City Council member).
Oh, and Mr. Rodriguez, you can get second-hand soda — just ask the thousands of people who have lost their loved ones to diabetes. Or the millions of U.S. residents who will pay for the health care costs of people suffering from nutrition-related diseases.
This article was first featured on the Berkeley Media Studies Group blog on August 20, 2014.