October 15, 2001
San Antonio Express-News (Texas)
by Richard A. Marini
IT’S not often a report from the American Heart Association is criticized. But a day after the Oct. 9 release of an AHA report blasting high-protein/low-carbohydrate weight-loss programs, an e-mail arrived from the Atkins diet people offering interviews with two medical experts to discuss the “safety, efficacy and convenience of the Atkins Nutritional Approach.”
Although the e-mail made no direct mention of the AHA report, it was an obvious effort to rebut newspaper and TV stories critical of weight-loss programs such as the Atkins diet.
It was also the most recent in a series of targeted efforts by Atkins to sidestep the almost universal scorn these diets have received from medical establishments such as the AHA, the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association. More so than any other weight-loss plan, Atkins aggressively courts the media.
“They’re more open to our message,” says Colette Heimowitz, director of education and research for Atkins Health and Medical Information Services in New York.
The AHA advisory, published in the association’s respected journal Circulation, studied existing research and the diets themselves. It concluded that there’s no proof these diets are effective for long-term weight loss and warned that they may cause potential health risks for those who follow them for more than a short time. In addition to the Atkins diet, the advisory panel reviewed the Zone, Protein Power, Sugar Busters and Stillman diets.
No sooner was the ink dry on press reports about the review than media experts at WWR Public Relations, the Alexandria, Va., agency that represents Atkins, were contacting news outlets to offer opposing views.
“We’d started reaching out to media in the top 25 metropolitan markets about a month or so ago,” explains Richard Rothstein, president of the agency. “But when the AHA report came out, we shifted gears. We figured we needed to make a rebuttal to the report.”
Indeed, since landing the $750,000-a-year Atkins public relations account three years ago, WWR has followed a strategy of targeting about 1,500 health and fitness, nutrition and lifestyle reporters at newspapers, magazines and TV stations nationwide. The company peppers them with reprints of scientific studies favorable to high-protein diets, steers reporters toward medical conferences where the concept is scheduled to be praised and has developed a stable of reputable scientists willing to be interviewed on the topic.
“We’ve seen media coverage go from 95 percent negative to between 70 percent and 80 percent balanced,” says Rothstein.
Atkins’ opponents concede that this PR strategy can be effective, even if they feel that - like the diets themselves - it’s dangerous in the long run.
“The American public needs to decide whether they want to receive their health information from a private, profit-making company like Atkins or a nonprofit organization staffed primarily by volunteers, such as the American Heart Association,” says Robert H. Eckel, chair of the AHA committee and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.