“Good corporate citizen” Nestle never passes up an opportunity to spin its “good neighbor” message to the world, but according t0 a memo obtained by the UK Scotsman, Nestle’s part of a campaign attempting to vilify the quality of tap water.
The Scotsman obtained a 3-page memo written by a PR firm working for the Natural Hydration Council (the UK’s bottled water industry trade group that’s the equivalent of North America’s IBWA).
Nestle is a leading player in the group, and we’ll let the Scotsman’s reporter lay out the ugly details:
AIDES working for bottled water producers are planning to use scare tactics to protect falling sales in Scotland by attacking the quality of tap water supplied to consumers.
The tactics are outlined in a memorandum drawn up by a public relations company employed by the industry to be used in case “the media turns hostile to our cause”.
It suggests using data on contamination of public water supplies with potentially-harmful bugs, such as E Coli and cryptosporidium, to highlight the merits of drinking bottled water. Sales of bottled water have fallen nationally over the last year because of the effects of the recession on disposable incomes.
The memo, obtained by Scotland on Sunday, was written by a London PR company working for the Natural Hydration Council, an industry lobby group funded by three major bottled water companies. They include Nestlé, which markets Vittel and Perrier; Danone, which produces Volvic and Evian; and Perthshire-based Highland Spring.
The Scotsman quoted several passages in the memo which clearly indicate the PR firms plan to attack the quality of bottled water should media coverage turn “hostile” – but later the writer of the memo contradicts what he wrote.
It was sent to an Edinburgh-based communications company, 3X1 – which is paid by the industry to lobby on its behalf – to be deployed on the same day as the annual publication of Scotland’s Drinking Water Quality Regulator, last Thursday.
The regulator’s report concluded that the quality of Scottish drinking water remains “extremely high” with 99.75 per cent of supplies meeting safety standards. It adds that two tap samples in Scotland contained E Coli in 2008, an improvement on 2007 when five failures were recorded.
[ed: emphasis mine] This prompted Julie McGarvey, of 3X1 to write to her colleague James Laird, at Epicurus Communications in London: “Clock the E Coli data. Good to keep up our sleeve.”
Laird wrote back that he had already written a memo, based on an analysis of reports by the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England, that had “observations” that might be useful “should the media turn hostile towards our cause.”
He adds that the report offers “potential sound-bite notes that could be used for NHC un-attributable media briefings.” “Unattributable briefings” is lobby group shorthand for information passed to journalists on condition they do not name their source.
After reading the last paragraph above, now read the astonishing denial by the consultant who wrote the quoted memo:
Asked whether the examples of problems in the public water supply would be communicated to journalists, he replied: “Absolutely not. The NHC supports the consumption of all water, whether bottled or tap. There is no intent, desire or mandate to criticise tap water on behalf of the NHC.”
One word leaps to mind.
And even journalist and author Elizabeth Royte thinks its time to end the charade:
The bottled water industry continues to claim it competes not with tap water but with high-calorie and other processed drinks. The argument is getting a little tired.
And yes, one reason industries form trade groups like the Natural Hydration Council or North America’s International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is so water bottlers don’t have to get their hands dirty.
They simply pay others to do their dirty work for them.
We’ve noted in the past that the bottled water industry – facing tough economic conditions and opposition on environmental grounds – will increasingly turn to FUD tactics (Fearn, Uncertainty, Doubt) to drive sales.
In this case, the evidence fell into the right hands, but how much of this kind of thing is currently being planned behind closed doors elsewhere?
Why else would the IBWA hire former Tobacco Institute spokesperson Tom Lauria?
In the light of stories like this, it’s clear.
The real “product” of the Tobacco Institute was “doubt” – an ongoing effort to undermine good science detailing the hazards of smoking, confusing consumers and providing cover for the industry.
Expect to see more “doubt” sown by the bottled water industry about the quality of the water that comes out of your tap.
And when you do, recognize it for what it is.