Net PR Move Trumps ABC’s ’20/20′

Metabolife Intl., maker of the world’s largest selling diet supplement, appears to have successfully leveraged the Internet to put a positive public relations spin on what it anticipated would be a potentially damaging segment on ABC News’ “20/20.”

This type of maneuver is the first of its kind on the Web.

The company launched Oct. 6 to air an unedited, 70-minute version of an interview ABC News correspondent Arnold Diaz conducted with Metabolife CEO Michael Ellis and Metabolife Medical Director Randy Smith.

Metabolife hoped the footage would discredit the “20/20” coverage of the company, which it feared would portray the company’s product in a negative light, before it aired Oct. 15. To generate traffic, Metabolife unleashed a $1.5 million advertising blitz.

According to results from a Metabolife survey conducted on the site, these efforts may have worked. The survey, as of Oct. 11, revealed that 74 percent of those who visited the site felt the report would be biased, 89 percent believed television news magazine stories try to influence opinions and 95 percent said the site was useful and informative.

Metabolife was under legal advice not to reveal how many people responded to the survey or how many viewed the site. However, CEO Michael Ellis told iMarketing News, “We needed to install more T1 lines to handle the volume.”

ABC said this attack-first approach was unnecessary. “We think its crazy to react this way to something they had never even seen,” said ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. “It’s an attempt on their part to distract the public from what we’ll put on air and invade the editorial process.”

The report was an investigation of health and safety claims about the Metabolife product. Ellis decided to launch the site and the marketing campaign when he discovered that the network might have decided to base the story largely on comments from a doctor listed on the Slim-Fast Web site, Metabolife’s chief competitor, as a trustee with the Slim-Fast Nutrition Institute.

“The interview didn’t look like it was going to be a fair interview. We felt it was important for people to have the whole story,” said Ellis. “Metabolife has thousands of people who depend on the product for their livelihood, millions of consumers and 350 employees. A slanted story, non-balanced story would be damaging to every one of them.”

Despite Metabolife’s print ad campaign in the New York Times and other major newspapers, as well 1,500 radio ads nationwide, “the piece will air same as it would have whether or not there was a campaign,” said Murphy.

This type of public relations maneuver is the first of its kind on the Web. Ellis said he chose the Internet because “we wanted to know if there was some kind of format that would give the whole story. Then we thought, ‘Maybe the Internet.’ The Metabolife site gets millions of hits a week. We put this out and advertised, hoping viewers would go to it and they have.”

According to Murphy, “it’s a dangerous precedent. Most responsible organizations will see what you do before they criticize you.”

But Ellis felt he needed to act quickly as he was concerned that the 20/20 segment was retaliation because the San Diego-based Metabolife had filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC’s Boston affiliate, WCVB.

“That’s a ridiculous statement,” said Murphy. “We have 224 affiliates. WCVB is owned by Hearst. We have no financial stake in that company. It’s a stretch.”

At press time, 20/20’s television ratings for the report were not available, however Ellis expects all of the attention will account for a “big boost in ratings.”

Which is fine with ABC. “If that happens, we’re happy,” said Murphy. It’s an important story.”

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