Berman to Industry: Play Offense

Don't let interest groups put you on the defensive, he cautions

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- If it's already a bill, you're probably too late. Or, as conservative public affairs specialist Rick Berman cautioned at CSP's 2011 Outlook Leadership Conference, "legislation does not drive public opinion; public opinion drives legislation."

And liberal groups, he said, have been winning too many battles on issues such as obesity taxes and energy legislation not because the facts line up with their positions, but because they are staking positions early and putting industries on the defensive.

For the convenience store channel, he cautioned, [image-nocss] that is particularly dangerous because much of today's political offensive centers around three convenience cores: energy/environment, food and labor.

From minimum wage to bans on trans fats and environmental concerns to tobacco regulations, liberal-minded nonprofits have successfully swung public opinion over the past 25 years, he said. As Berman put it, "it's not that smoking is any more dangerous than it was 25 years ago. It's just that public opinion has changed." And not necessarily for the good, Berman asserted.

He did not argue that certain foods or unhealthy or that tobacco is cancer-causing. Rather, what may start out as reasonable regulation often becomes unwieldy and excessively intrusive, with little social benefit. One example, he cited, was a federal-based campaign that equated soda consumption to drinking fat.

It is not the regulations against soda, he said; the situation is worse, he warned, because "they're trying to affect consumer behavior." Such campaigns, including the soda tax or candy tax, are aimed at restricting consumer choice, a free marketplace and, too often, are based on circumstantial science.

In a presentation blending witty footage with solemn messages, Berman, president of Berman & Co., admonished corporations that commit a fatal mistake by ignoring initial attacks from various interest groups. Frequently, such campaigns are dismissed as nuisances or wails emanating from a radical few.

Yet the three-decade progression of tobacco restrictions, from smoking bans to graphic images on packages, strongly suggests that when an industry plays defense--such as the tobacco sector, in this case--that industry ultimately loses. Why? Because by the time affected companies respond, public opinion has already shifted against them.

Berman spoke earlier this year at CSP's Foodservice at Retail Exchange. To see what he had to say, click here.

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