BIOTECH PR: The battle of biotech arrives on US shores - Bruised and battered in Europe, the biotech industry is desperate to fare better in the US. The major players are in a race with public interest groups that pits education against activism

Pledging not to repeat past mistakes, the biotechnology industry has amassed its forces for an extensive PR campaign in the US. Bolstered by bipartisan political support, its first step is to educate an uninformed US consumer base, which means doing battle with a loosely knit but formidable network of PR-savvy public interest factions that just won’t go away.

Pledging not to repeat past mistakes, the biotechnology industry has amassed its forces for an extensive PR campaign in the US. Bolstered by bipartisan political support, its first step is to educate an uninformed US consumer base, which means doing battle with a loosely knit but formidable network of PR-savvy public interest factions that just won’t go away.

Pledging not to repeat past mistakes, the biotechnology industry

has amassed its forces for an extensive PR campaign in the US. Bolstered

by bipartisan political support, its first step is to educate an

uninformed US consumer base, which means doing battle with a loosely

knit but formidable network of PR-savvy public interest factions that

just won’t go away.



While the debate over genetically engineered (GE) food sat on the back

burner in the US for well over a decade, the leading biotech companies

launched a series of poorly timed and ineffectual PR campaigns in the

European markets several years ago. ’Basically, Monsanto, and to a

lesser extent the other GE companies in the European Union, tried

traditional PR tactics in 1996-99 that failed,’ says Ronnie Cummins,

director of the Organic Consumers Association.



Not only did the fragmented EU campaigns come on the heels of the

European ’Mad Cow’ crisis, which made consumers extremely sensitive,

biotechnology soon proved an easy mark for both European journalists and

politicians.



’The PR efforts over in Europe were a total fiasco,’ says Institute for

Agriculture and Trade Policy communications coordinator Ben

Lilliston.



’They approached Europe very aggressively and were met head-on by a lot

of heavy resistance.’



While he argues that the EU campaign was not a total failure for the

biotech industry, Stephen Kehoe, senior managing director at BSMG

Worldwide, concedes there are valuable lessons to be learned. Guns

blazing, the Council for Biotechnology Information earlier this year

handed BSMG the reins on a dollars 50 million integrated communications

program. ’One thing everyone agrees upon in the biotechnology industry

in the US is that supporters have to stick together,’ he says.



The need for unity in the US



’In Europe, they were too quick to be pushed on the defensive, and there

was nothing to be defensive about,’ Kehoe continues. ’You have to

realize you’re going to take some hits. Their mistake was they didn’t

continue with the information outreach, including educating

consumers.



We won’t make the same mistakes.’



So far, industry leaders are showing the solidarity Kehoe says is so

vital for success. Biotech’s big guns - Monsanto, Aventis, BASF, Dow,

DuPont, Novartis, Astra Zeneca and the Biotechnology Industry

Organization - have banded together to form the Council, which launched

its campaign recently via extensive information outreach, TV and radio

ads, a recently unveiled Web site and an upcoming newsletter.



But the Council’s pockets might not be as deep as some think. While

expenditures will probably climb higher over the next five years, Kehoe

says the five-year, dollars 250 million figure being bandied about is

based on speculation, as Council members have yet to allocate additional

funds.



Facing off against the Council are some 50 US-based public interest

organizations, including the Organic Consumers Association, the Center

for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, the Consumers Union and

Greenpeace.



These groups seek a moratorium on GE foods and crops until they have

been properly safety-tested. And what these organizations lack in funds,

they make up for in fervor, planning numerous protests and boycotts over

the coming months.



’On the NGO (non-governmental organization)/public interest side we have

a more modest dollars 1 million-per-year budget to work with, so we have

to strictly limit our expenditures on polls, focus groups and fees to PR

professionals,’ says Cummins. ’On the other hand, many public interest

groups have become quite skilled at media and PR work.’



As part of their campaign, anti-biotech groups are targeting a number of

leading US food corporations and supermarket chains - dubbed the

’Frankenfoods 15’ - exerting pressure through grass-roots lobbying,

shareholder actions and even supermarket leaflets.



The pressure has already achieved results, as a number of leading food

corporations (Gerber, Heinz, Frito-Lay, Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s and

Burger King) have begun to remove GE ingredients from their

products.



Because the FDA, or any other US regulatory agency for that matter, has

not issued any safety warnings about GE foods, these actions appear to

be gambits aimed at heading off potential consumer backlash. The biotech

agenda, however, has not been without its victories, as some anti-GE

folks grudgingly concede.



John Stauber, editor of PR Watch, says that biotech PR pros used to just

bury the issue. ’That’s changed as consumer rejection abroad and looming

trade wars have shed media attention on biotechnology,’ he says. ’People

in the US are shocked to find that, without their knowledge or

permission, their food has become genetically engineered.’ Aware of

this, biotech PR pros have now placed information distribution at the

heart of all PR efforts.



’Our whole strategy is based on getting people to understand this

technology and what it can deliver,’ Kehoe explains. ’The opponents’

main ’fear of the unknown’ argument is really all they have in their

arsenal. We need to get the message out that there hasn’t been a single

documented report that these things aren’t safe to eat.’



Political support



Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, US politicians from both parties have

embraced the biotech industry, lending credence to the Council and

making GE opponents very nervous. Most recently, a group of eight state

governors, led by Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, launched an initiative

supporting biotechnology.



’The biotech critics are gaining momentum, but they have a huge task

ahead, because Bush, followed by Clinton and Gore, have let the biotech

horse out of the barn, and it’s running amuck,’ says Stauber. ’It

matters little who wins the presidential election because both parties

are solidly pro-biotech and unlikely to initiate meaningful safety

testing or labeling.’



There are a number of upcoming events that should turn up the volume on

the debate. Court cases, like the one from the Washington, DC-based

Center for Food Safety attacking the FDA’s policies, are usually good

fodder for media coverage. But the most noise will no doubt come from a

string of protests and boycotts scheduled by the Organic Consumers

Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others.



If history is any indicator, PR pros on the biotech side had better get

it right this time around. ’They’ve been telling people ever since the

failure in Europe that this is going to blow over, but it hasn’t,’ says

Lilliston. ’If anything, European opposition to biotechnology has

solidified.’ The two sides are ready for a slugfest, and the bell for

the first round has rung.





TALE OF THE TAPE



Pro-GE



Key players: The Council for Biotechnology Information (members:

Aventis, BASF, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis, Astra Zeneca,

Biotechnology Industry Organization) Budget: dollars 50 million this

year, could grow substantially over next five years



Notable supporters: President Bill Clinton; Vice President Al Gore;

Gov.



George W. Bush; Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and UN ambassador;

James Watson, Nobel prize winner



Tactics: Extensive information distribution, TV and radio advertising,

Web site, newsletters



Anti-GE Key players: Approximately 50 NGO/public interest organizations,

including Organic Consumers Associations, the Center for Food Safety,

Friends of the Earth, the Consumers Union and Greenpeace.



Budget: About dollars 1 million



Notable supporters: Prince Charles; British Medical Association; Dr.



Michael Hansen (Consumers Union); Dr. Margaret Mellon (Union of

Concerned Scientists); Sen. Patrick Moynihan; Sen. Barbara Boxer

Tactics: Grass-roots lobbying, shareholder actions, leafleting

campaigns, Web sites, boycotting, non-violent protests.



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