N5M Conference, March 1999
The Monsanto Re-Make: From Chemicals to ‘Life Sciences’
Since it was founded at the turn of the century, Monsanto has grown to be a major US corporation with sales in chemicals, agricultural products, pharmaceuticals and food ingredients.
Throughout its history, Monsanto has marketed controversial products such as:
Plant biotechnology, by altering genetic material and enabling the species barrier to be jumped, is a radically new manipulation that leads to fundamental changes in plant make-up and characteristics. It may well have severe and irreversible consequences on ecosystems, the environment and to human health. Whilst we do not yet have answers to these fundamental questions, Monsanto, and others, are pushing for commercialisation.
The Monsanto European Strategy: Selling a Revolution
RoundUp Ready Soya, which is resistant to Roundup, was the first genetically modified foodstuff that Monsanto imported to Europe, in 1996. This caused an uproar from both the public and campaigners. For Monsanto, public opinion had to be dealt with: the public needed to be ‘reassured’ and ‘convinced’ about biotechnology so that issues of labelling and segregation could be sidelined. This radical new means of altering the basic genetic fabric of plants and thus our food had to be sold directly to the public: Monsanto set out to sell a revolution, and not only that, but the corporation’s leading role in this revolution.
The Advertising Campaign
PR strategies are in general highly diverse and typically include different activities. One of Monsanto’s major PR initiatives was a European-wide advertising campaign that targeted specific countries where opposition to GM foods was perceived to be highest, such as in Britain and in Germany. The Monsanto strategy was to place a series of full-page adverts in newspapers and magazines typically read by members of high socio-economic categories who were perceived as being influential on decision-makers. Monsanto therefore selected target countries, target ‘consumers’ and target media sources for these adverts. These adverts were also posted on the web.
The adverts themselves all had a common theme with some variation according
to country. The adverts were relatively simple, being more text than image
Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions,
Monsanto believes you should hear them all.
ran one advert in the UK. Interesting since this suggests that science, environment and health are irrelevant to the issue. Other adverts included claims such as one stating that GM tomatoes required less pesticide, and another that GM crops were better for the environment than conventional farming. These were presented as accepted fact while there is still no proof that they are correct.
The underlying message to come out from these adverts therefore was that Monsanto knew the facts about biotechnology and was presenting the public with the answers. By publishing several full-page adverts per newspaper on a weekly basis, the corporation was clearly taking the aggressive PR approach that if you present things nicely (biotechnology is good for the environment was the underlying theme), loudly and often enough, it will be accepted. A common marketing and PR objective is to aim for your target audience to associate a company or a brand name to a particular characteristic or phenomena. In this case, consumers were to think Monsanto and link to biotechnology, and vice versa.
Silencing the Critics
If this way of communicating to the public is a sign of aggressive PR, Monsanto was also finding other equally aggressive ways to silence critics:
GenetiX Snowball organised an action on the 4th of July 1998. They were arrested and Monsanto chose to issue civil court proceedings. Monsanto has obtained a wide injunction against ‘the unincorporated association known as GenetiX Snowball’. According to Kathryn Tulip, one of the campaigners and a qualified solicitor, this means that in addition to those named in the lawsuit being barred from Monsanto owned sites, the injunction also appears to covers people who have worked closely with GenetiX Snowball or who have received training from them. If such a group went on to do an action at a Monsanto site, then the named GenetiX Snowball campaigners could be found in breach of the injunction.
When the case comes to court in April 1999, it is likely that Monsanto will attempt to show that GenetiX Snowball have no defence for trespassing on Monsanto property. Should this be accepted by the Judge, then judgement will be given immediately, and none of the arguments against genetic engineering and why this group have chosen this form of campaign will be heard. Monsanto also appears to have dropped the initial damages claim against the group so as to avoid a PR disaster of a full hearing (such as the Mc Libel case). At the hearing, Monsanto will seek a permanent injunction against the group, along the lines of the current on, and will ask for an order that the group provide them with the names and addresses of all the groups and individuals having received the GenetiX Snowball handbook.
Now take a look at the Monsanto UK website: on the discussion page (www.monsanto.co.uk/discussion/discussion/html) Monsanto UK writes, “Some activist groups in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have been involved in the destruction of GMO crop test sites […] We'd like to know what you think. Please participate in this online discussion [..] A representative sampling of views from all sides of the debate will be posted on a regular basis.”
This is a clear example of the duality of Monsanto’s ‘dialogue’ PR initiatives,
which continue under the slogan of ‘Food, Health, Hope ™’.
The Failure of the PR campaign: Reasons
The Monsanto PR campaign, in the UK and Germany at least, was a failure: the public did not ‘buy’ biotechnology and campaigners continued to expose Monsanto. This can be highlighted by recent reports that the UK Advertising Standards Agency has reached a damning preliminary ruling that the Monsanto UK adverts were ‘misleading’ and ‘confusing’ as well as presenting Monsanto opinion as ‘accepted fact’.
Monsanto has been highly damaged by the backfiring of its PR campaign.
According to one spoof ad of the Monsanto UK ad campaign:
'Food biotechnonology is a matter of opinion. At Nonsanto, opinion is something we buy. Nonsanto,
Fraud – Stealth – Hype’ .
There are a variety of possible reasons for this failure:
This can be further illustrated by looking at the choice of key words that Monsanto UK has included in its website. Amongst these key words are Terminator, Frankenstein, Controversy and Manipulation.
The Explosion of the GM Debate
The PR disaster has in fact served to blow the GMO issue up into a UK nation wide debate involving leading politicians and scientists. The uproar has also reached the European level as well as causing friction between the EU and the US at the WTO level.
The genetic engineering industry as a whole and policy makers have been unwillingly dragged into the debate. Biotechnology proponents as a whole have therefore had to re-think their strategy. An idea as to what this new strategy will be can be obtained by looking at two examples of industry success stories:
1. Monsanto in the Netherlands
Monsanto hired the services of Schuttelaar & Partners, a PR consultancy of which one of the partners, Marcel Schuttelaar, used to work for Friends of The Earth Netherlands. The PR strategy in the Netherlands has been based on forward planning and discretion: Monsanto participated in the set-up of the Margarine, Fats and Oils Productboard whose membership include the Dutch food-processing companies. This Productboard organised a trip to St Louis for relevant Dutch Ministries in 1995 – one year before Roundup Ready Soya was to enter the EU market. The PR consultancy also commissioned a scientific report from the Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CML). The CMG’s report was shown at a media workshop 6 months prior to the Soya entering the EU. The idea behind this was to have the media cover the story before any outcry, to be bored with it, and to therefore be distanced from any environmental groups. The potential sensitive points and the GM issues as a whole were therefore dealt with discreetly and in advance so as to avoid major debate at the time that RRS entered the EU markets.
This has been an effective PR strategy as public debate has been muted in the Netherlands and opposition has not been strongly felt.
2. The Swiss Referendum
In June 1998, the Swiss people voted by a 2:1 majority not to ban genetic engineering. This was a victory for Biotechnology proponents. These proponents selected various strategies for selling biotechnology to the Swiss citizens. They organised themselves into a coalition with different groups arguing for biotechnology (farmers unions, medical workers, patient groups). The coalition was well organised with a strong leadership. Biotechnology corporations took a back seat to this coalition (although one can imagine that they contributed financially) and also to scientists and local politicians who all spoke out in favour of genetic engineering. The role played by scientists was particularly important, as they ‘took to the streets’ to sell biotechnology to the public as their like, their future, an important asset for Switzerland. Young scientists were especially active in this, whilst Nobel Prize winners participated in press conferences.
The debate was shifted away from man and the environment to health and research issues, as well as focusing on the economic aspects (jobs, brain drain, …). This success story is seen as an important victory and lesson to industry and policy makers.
The Way Forward?
These two examples show that the Monsanto PR disaster has not made biotechnology proponents pause to re-think about whether we need plant biotechnology or not, but rather has made them group together to come up with novel strategies for how to convince the public that biotechnology is the only way forward, and the policy makers that pubic opinion is the problem, not biotechnology.
It is these new strategies that need to be monitored now. Industry has learnt a hard lesson and is putting major efforts now into ‘dialogue’ attempts whilst becoming more discrete and more focussed on ‘information’ rather than bald PR. Monsanto’s web pages include much more text than before with less focus on photos. In the US, they have created a website for farmers (farmsource.com). The participation and discussion possibilities are also new (and originally appeared in campaigning sites such as the McSpotlight site).
Industry is looking at campaigners and copying them: local action including direct local action by scientists is becoming a focus. PR training programmes are even being organised by the European Commission. The Commission is also funding education programmes for adolescents on biotechnology whilst industry (Monsanto, Novartis and AgrEvo) have co-funded pro-biotechnology pull-outs for adolescent girl magazines in Germany.
If, to a certain extent, aggressive PR helps campaigners to pin corporations down, it is important to continue to follow industry’s learning process in a sector that they themselves have already targeted as the ‘green challenge’.