Revolutionary Measures

A spoonful of sugar

Obesity is an enormous problem in the UK, especially amongst the young. One in three children leave primary school overweight or obese. It has a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of the obese themselves, and treating it costs services such as the NHS an estimated £5.1 billion every year.

Softdrinks in supermarket

So the Chancellor’s unexpected announcement of a sugar tax on soft drinks from 2018 in the recent budget makes financial and social success. If you can reduce the consumption of sugar in soft drinks, it will help reduce the impact (and cost) of obesity by lowering sales. A 10% tax levied in Mexico worked, bringing down the amount of soft drinks drunk by 6%. In the UK proceeds from the tax are ringfenced, and will be spent on primary school sports, meaning the government can’t be accused of simply making this a revenue generating exercise. Campaigners, such as Jamie Oliver, are delighted – while soft drink makers such as Coke are threatening to sue the government.

No-one would deny that we are facing an obesity epidemic – simply look around at the number of people (adults and children) you see that are overweight. And few would argue that it is a good thing for either their own health or the country as a whole. Where the arguments start is the relative roles of government and individual in dealing with the problem. How do you balance free choice for people to do something that is perfectly legal (buy fizzy, sugary drinks), against the harm it is doing to themselves and the cost to the NHS? Most people accept that in some cases, such as tobacco, high taxes are justified by the damage that cigarette smoking does, and the addictive qualities of nicotine. Other examples, such as tax on alcohol and petrol are less clear cut. Living in the countryside, with a skeleton bus service, I need to drive to most places, so does that make fuel taxes unfair in my case?

Where you draw the line is the issue. The government would argue that in the case of obesity, particularly among children, the damage is too great and that previous attempts to educate the public about the dangers of sugar have not worked. Critics see the tax as interference in their lives, even if what they are doing is harming them in the long term.

As a parent, I think there is another dimension to this – it may sound old-fashioned, but we’ve got a duty to educate our children about the dangers of over-consumption of anything (whether sugar, chocolate, alcohol or food generally), the need for exercise and to set a good example. By that I don’t mean turning into marathon running vegans who exist on a lettuce leaf a day, but showing that you need to balance what you eat and drink, while getting out and taking exercise when you can.

I expect the PR battle around the sugar tax to rage for a long time, with both sides advancing their arguments to the electorate. It promises to be a fascinating contest – on one side you have Jamie Oliver and those that believe people, especially children, need to be saved from themselves, while on the other the massed ranks of the soft drinks lobby will try and paint the tax as something that won’t have an impact and will limit people’s freedom to consume what they want. The fight has already started – whether Coke or the Naked Chef wins is going to be central to where the line between free choice and government intervention is redrawn.

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The wages of spin

Houses of Parliament 1 db

When I tell people I work in PR I tend to be put in one of two groups – either seen as a purveyor of celebrity tittle-tattle or as a slick spinmeister changing government policy. Obviously I do neither of these – for a start I wouldn’t recognise most celebrities and my influence on government is limited to voting at elections. There’s no way I could compete with the likes of Malcolm Tucker when it comes to either Machiavellian behaviour or inventive swearing.

But government spin is currently back in the news, thanks to the involvement of lobbyist Lynton Crosby with Tory election strategy. At the same Crosby’s company works with tobacco firms and fingers have been pointed at the postponement of the switch to plain cigarette packets since he joined David Cameron’s team. Both sides deny any wrongdoing, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt (remember his denials over Murdoch?) saying that he has not been lobbied by Crosby.

At the same time parliament is discussing a new lobbying bill that aims to create a register of third party lobbyists and compel them to publish a full list of their clients. This seems a little delayed given that David Cameron suggested in the run up to the last election that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.

I’ve got nothing against lobbying per se. If government is making critical decisions of national importance it is vital that they have as much information as possible and specialist experience and knowledge is vital to deliver this. Equally, constituents need to be able to raise their concerns with their local MP, whether they are businesses or individuals.

Where it gets complex and unclear is when things are not open and transparent. For example, MPs that are engaged in consultancy work for shadowy organisations and then introduce helpful amendments to bills that benefit these clients or lobbyists that have dual roles as special advisers at the same time as representing specific business interests.

This isn’t just about PR or spin, but I think we need draconian change in three areas:

  • Not just a register of lobbyists but a blanket ban on advisers working for government and companies at the same time.
  • Given their well above inflation pay rise, MPs should be banned from taking on paid consultancy work with any organisations.
  • There should be a register of lobbyists and their clients, and this needs to be comprehensive and detailed. It needs to be clear who the ultimate beneficiary is of any lobbying, so companies can’t hide behind shell organisations and the length of time and budget involved should be published.

As a PR person who focuses on technology and start-ups I’m tired of being tarred with the same brush as parliamentary spin doctors who probably earn ten times my salary. And this isn’t sour grapes, more that if PR is going to be seen as a vital part of (above board) business, it needs to clear up its act in all areas. Time for trade body the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to do some lobbying of its own to benefit the entire industry – unless we want to be pigeonholed as Malcolm Tuckers or Matthew Freuds for the foreseeable future.

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments