In January 1989 the R.J.Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) was desperately trying to salvage its 'smokeless' Premier cigarette from marketing oblivion. On behalf of RJR Matt Swetonic, then a Senior Vice President in Hill & Knowlton's New York office, set out to court Kenneth Tomlinson, the then Executive Editor of Readers Digest, in the hope of garnering favorable media coverage. (These days Tomlinson is the controversial Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
For RJR the attraction of pitching the Premier story to the Readers Digest was precisely because for decades it had relentlessly highlighted the deadly impact of smoking. Favorable media coverage of Premier could not only undermine tobacco control activists arguments against cigarettes but could help reverse the relentless march to market share dominance of Philip Morris's Marlboro brand.
For well over a year Swetonic had been unsuccessfully pushing RJR for authorisation to set up a meeting with the Readers Digest. Finally in October 1988 Swetonic got the go ahead. "Approach Readers Digest (thru Swetonic) re: interest in article on full results of study," a schedule for a PR plan noted.
In mid-January 1989 Swetonic met Tomlinson at a meeting of the Cub Scouts. In a briefing note to RJR, Swetonic noted that after he mentioned a September 1988 New York Times editorial on Premier, Tomlinson requested a sampling of newspaper clippings. "I felt it important that we not be perceived as trying to hide the 'negative' publicity on Premier," he wrote in a memo. While the sample clips included some that were "negative," Swetonic reported that "articles on its 'taste', 'smell' and consumer acceptance, on the other hand, did not seem to be important, considering the attributes that the Digest appeared to be most interested in."
While the New York Times editorial didn't give the Premier an unqualified endorsement, in another document Swetonic noted the potential ripple effect from its qualified endorsement. "If some publications such as the New York Times concludes that the new cigarettes provides some health or social benefit, this will influence the reporting of nearly every media outlet".
The following week Swetonic followed up on his meeting with Tomlinson in a handwritten letter. In addition to the newspaper clips Swetonic's letter mentions that he included "a carton of Premier" and the company's monograph 700-plus page monograph on the tests results.
In a later memo Swetonic noted that one of the few bright spots in their campaign to promot the Premier brand was when they got out to do outreach work to editorial boards. "While there has been considerable reluctance on the part of many science writers we talked to to do positive stories on Premier, we did receive a reasonable friendly hearing at the Readers Digest ...," Swetonic noted.
But before Swetonic's courting of Tomlinson and Readers Digest could bear fruit, RJR abruptly ended the Premier trial. In May 1992 Swetonic compiled a eight-page memo history reviewing the frustrations Hill & Knowlton had experienced in trying to promote the Premier cigarette since it took over the account from Burson-Marsteller in August 1987.
In his memo an anguished Swetonic, who by then had moved on to work for E. Bruce Harrison Company, recounted the frustrations he encountered trying to boost the floundering product. Swetonic lamented "there are some who believe that Premier could still have been saved at the 11th hour if a positive Readers Digest story had appeared in time. The issue is moot of course, since the Digest killed the article when the product was pulled. Who knows?"
Who knows indeed. While there is nothing in the internal industry documents indicating what the Readers Digest coverage may have been - beyond having had a "friendly hearing" and Swetonic's optimism - it is unlikely that it alone would have rescued RJR's dying cigarette.
In early 1991 Swetonic moved on to work for the E. Bruce Harrison Company and, from July 1 that year, the RJR account followed him. (He later went on to become a principal in the New York office of The Dilenschneider Group).
But as so often happens, the intersections between the worlds of conservative editors, PR companies and the tobacco industry reverberates years later. Last Friday, Patricia Harrison, the co-founder of the E. Bruce Harrison Company was appointed as President and Chief Execeutive Officer of the Corporation for Public Brodacasting. Over the last month it was Tomlinson, now Chairman of the CPB, who championed Harrison's candidacy.
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