PHOENIX — With a background in the beef and potato industries, Tim O’Connor, Wheat Foods Council president since July 1, has experience working in an environment in which negative press coverage adversely affects perceptions of “his industry.” With flour-based foods under siege from gluten-free advocates and others, this history may be valuable.

Tim O'Conner, WFC
Tim O’Connor, Wheat Foods Council president

Negative campaigning, attacking fad diets, is not effective, Mr. O’Connor said. Instead, he advocated efforts that emphasize the healthfulness of grain. He discussed these issues in a presentation before the North American Millers’ Association during the group’s annual meeting Oct. 22-24 at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix.

“We are in the middle of this gluten-free diet,” he said. “Although, I am going to tell you I think we have reached the peak, and we are over the top of it. I believe we have reached a tipping point. Bringing that message forward based on my experience with low cholesterol, low fat and low carbohydrate diets, that we are at the point where they have hit their zenith in media interest and piling on. The glide path down is what we are concerned about now.”

The W.F.C.’s base is 26 wheat producer organizations and the other industry members.

“All these fad diets go through the same phase,” he said. “When they get started there is a rush by the media to cover it. The Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet … all these diets have a moment in the media where the story was ‘everyone should do this,’ ‘it is a wonderful thing,’ ‘people who are doing this, it is miraculously changing their lives.’”

Eventually, after people realize that these miracles are not materializing major mainstream media sources start to question the diets. This has happened with gluten-free as Consumer Reports, US News and World Report, The New York Times, Washington Post and others have questioned the diet’s efficacy and the products sold under its banner.

“In my experience with fad diets some of the major contributors are celebrities and word of mouth piled on,” Mr. O’Connor said. “When we were attacking the Atkins Diet at the potato industry, we wanted to really attack with an advertising campaign. We had enough resources to do a bit of that. So we did focus group work and tested messages. We could not get a message that would work. Every time we put a message in front of the folks attacking the Atkins Diet, we got it thrown right back at us. The reason is simple. People want to lose weight. They go on these diets to lose weight, and they know somebody who has lost weight. So you can’t tell them the diet is a bad diet.

“We turned it around and started talking about the positive nutrition value of potatoes. And, we realized that had traction. Consumers didn’t know. As we talked about that we were able to rebuild. So we had a big erosion in consumers who believed potatoes were nutritious. We turned that all back around positively with a campaign that educated about the nutrition attributes.”

Instead of attacking gluten advocates, positive messaging about wheat has the potential to be a more effective strategy.

With his background in large consumer targeted campaigns, Mr. O’Connor said the W.F.C. is not in a position to pursue that strategy. Instead the W.F.C. is targeting an influencer strategy. Through its network of state wheat commissions and grower groups across the country, the W.F.C. seeks to create a proactive force of pro-wheat messaging.

“One of our primary focuses since I walked in the door on July 1 was on registered dietitians (R.D.),” Mr. O’Connor said. W.F.C. works to build awareness of the positive traits of wheat foods with general registered dietitians, including those at supermarkets and in the media.. 

To reach consumers, the W.F.C. is working to build its growing supermarket R.D. network as these influential R.D.s regularly interact with consumers.

“If you look at what we are doing today, we have this influencer strategy,” Mr. O’Connor said. “We target influencers. Who they in turn have audiences. We talk to the influencers and they reach the audience.”