Last April, the captive deer industry, which consists of deer breeders, farmers, and hunting preserve operators, was facing a public relations crisis. The Indianapolis Star had just published an 18-month investigation that found “the industry costs taxpayers millions of dollars, compromises long-standing wildlife laws, endangers wild deer and undermines the government's multibillion-dollar effort to protect livestock and the food supply.”
The deer breeders needed to respond. By May, the American Cervid Alliance, a “leadership council comprised of representatives from 36 separate elk, deer, and exotic associations,” had finalized a contract with a Washington, DC PR firm experienced in defending industries with tarnished public images: Berman and Company (BCI). Expecting BCI to respond to “any negative articles about cervid farming or conservation hunting” as well as to push for “positive proactive stories,” the ACA said it chose Richard Berman’s notorious firm because of its “proven track record of facing tough opposition with strong messages.”
The ACA, however, may want to temper its enthusiasm for BCI’s “track record.” CREW’s new report, Burned By Berman: A Special Interest PR Campaign Gone Wrong, documents how Mr. Berman’s tactics backfired when another embattled industry group, the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA), sought his services. The results for the ITA? A crackdown by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a $500,000 legal bill.
The indoor tanning industry, like the captive deer industry, was on the defensive when it turned to BCI. It was facing a tide of state-level legislation restricting minors’ access to tanning salons and health warnings from prestigious medical bodies. The ITA, too, was enthusiastic about what hiring Mr. Berman would bring. “The innovative and audacious strategy that Berman and Company has created for us will come at a high price, but will enable the indoor tanning industry to make invaluable strides forward,” the ITA wrote on a solicitation page for what was known as the “Berman campaign.”
The FTC began investigating the ITA’s Berman campaign within days of its first ad, which declared the claim that tanning caused melanoma to be “hype,” and argued “there is no compelling scientific evidence that tanning causes melanoma.” The FTC eventually concluded that the ITA had made false health and safety claims about indoor tanning. The ITA signed a settlement with the regulatory agency requiring them to cease making certain claims and to disclose health risks when making claims about the health benefits of tanning or the effect of tanning on the generation of vitamin D.
Mr. Berman is an old Washington hand and has been involved in many public relations battles. As CREW’s new report on the ITA’s experience demonstrates, they don’t always turn out well for his clients.
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