Is the weight-loss industry really the next tobacco?

Issue activists often try to demonize particular business sectors, and recent events suggest the weight-loss industry may be the next target.

This was certainly the apparent strategy of a small group who attempted to whip up public controversy over the boss of Australia’s highest profile weight-loss company being invited to a conference of principals and teachers from leading girls’ schools on the topic “Images of a girl: Diversity, Dilemmas and Future Possibilities.”

An eating disorders clinic called Bodymatters demanded Jenny Craig CEO Amy Smith be dumped as a speaker at the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia, claiming her presence would be “inappropriate.” Naturally it attracted the attention of talk-back radio hosts. And just as inevitably the protest organizer soon told the media it was comparable to inviting a speaker from the tobacco industry.

Alliance Chief Executive Jan Butler responded rather more calmly: “The choice of Amy Smith as a speaker at the conference relates to her long-standing support for women and their status, and her work as an advocate of change. In no way will she be talking about or even mentioning Jenny Craig.” This message was repeated by Ms Smith herself, who said she would not be speaking about weight-loss, but about leadership and the role of women in business. She also pointed out that she accepted the invitation as an old girl of the school where the conference will be held.

That didn’t deter ABC Radio host Jon Faine from putting the protesters’ allegation direct to this successful business-woman: “The claim is that your business thrives on body dissatisfaction among women and girls and that it beggars belief that you could be seen as an appropriate choice for educators of young girls to hear from.”

Despite such intemperate language, the invited speaker and the conference organizers stood firm and within a day the story had disappeared from the news cycle. However it provides important lessons for what an organization should do when challenged over a potentially damaging issue.  Some core questions must first be asked.

• How widespread is this concern?

• Does it reflect mainstream opinion?

• Is the person or organization leading the charge credible?

• How legitimate is their complaint, or is it a platform for another issue?

• Is it likely this opinion will gather support in the broader community?

When those questions are answered, follow the example of Amy Smith and the Alliance of Girls’ Schools. Make an informed and defensible decision, and stick with it

Later this month – when the scheduled conference takes place – Bodymatters may try to raise the issue again and a few journalists could play along for an easy headline. The question now must be, what contingency plans have the conference organizers put in place? And what is the longer term issue management strategy for Jenny Craig and its multinational owner, Nestle?

Body image and the self-esteem of young women is an important and sensitive concern. It shouldn’t be trivialised by an opportunistic issue campaign, and it is hardly helped by trying to demonize individuals or an entire industry. 

Could your organization or industry be vulnerable to a similar attack?  Call Tony Jaques


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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