Italian-owned milk company Parmalat hired a Sydney-based public relations firm to discredit New Zealand company A2 in a bid to stop the rival’s growing market share in Australia, according to news reports.
Fairfax reports Parmalat hired PR firm Crosby Textor, the spin doctors known for their work for the federal Liberal Party, to run a media campaign against the science that underpins A2’s lactose-free milk.
Parmalat’s Australian milk brands include Pauls and PhysiCAL. The company has recently relaunched its Pauls Zymil brand of lactose-free milk, which competes in the same market as A2.
An email from January, seen by Fairfax, detailed the firm’s brief: “Basically, they [Parmalat] are feeling the pinch and Pauls Milk is suffering. They want to communicate to the public that A2 isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. They will test the product and try to show that compared with other products (e.g. Pauls offering) that it isn’t worth the money.”
The campaign centred on newspaper articles accusing A2 of “misleading advertising and scare tactics”, after television program A Current Affair turned down an approach to broadcast the milk company’s claims. Parmalat has also issued a press release calling A2’s product claims a “scam”.
CP Communications chief executive and PR specialist Catriona Pollard told SmartCompany this is “a case of using PR to attempt to change people’s perceptions and opinions about a specific product or issue”.
While Pollard said it is not always necessary to blatantly discredit another company’s products, using PR in this way can be extremely effective.
“It’s about using different techniques and tactics to create questions in people’s minds,” she says.
Pollard says the strategy involves creating a situation where “people start questioning the validity of a person of product”.
“Once you’ve created doubt, you can replace that doubt with new data, facts and opinions, which hopefully then results in a change of behaviour. You can then put in place an idea of thought leadership or issue leadership, replacing one product or person with another expert,” she says.
Pollard says using PR in this way can be “significantly more effective” than traditional advertising.
“With an ad, it’s a branding exercise, but in this case what they want is to create doubt and then replace it with a new product,” she says. “They want to change an attitude or behaviour.”
And Pollard says consumers will instinctively trust what they read in the media, even if it has been influenced by PR, over an advertisement which they know is being paid for by the company. “There is a credibility factor because it has been reported on by a third party,” she says.
“For small business, the take away from this is the thought leadership aspect,” says Pollard. “It is enormously powerful to become an expert and trustworthy source of information in an industry.”
However, Pollard says authenticity is important, and it won’t work if the person or company in the media is just there to sell products.
“But if you consistently share opinions and facts and data, it will shape behaviour,” she says.
SmartCompany contacted Parmalat Australia but did not receive a response prior to publication.