Thinkpiece: The ’genetically modified’ food industry needs some savvy PR to reverse negative perceptions

A coalition of consumer activist and environmental groups are targeting genetically modified (GM) foods, with the goal of severely restricting their use. I have spent more than a decade counseling managed care companies, and I have seen this scenario played out before.

A coalition of consumer activist and environmental groups are targeting genetically modified (GM) foods, with the goal of severely restricting their use. I have spent more than a decade counseling managed care companies, and I have seen this scenario played out before.

A coalition of consumer activist and environmental groups are

targeting genetically modified (GM) foods, with the goal of severely

restricting their use. I have spent more than a decade counseling

managed care companies, and I have seen this scenario played out

before.



First, we will see a concentrated attack by consumer advocates. Then the

national news media will publish a series of investigative articles

featuring horrifying anecdotes. Finally, state and federal legislators,

seeking to win votes but operating with little scientific knowledge,

will attempt to make social policy based on the negative press

coverage.



As the GM foods industry prepares to launch its own PR offensive, I

offer some unsolicited advice. First, adopt a new name. Like managed

care, the term ’genetically modified food’ is itself a major liability.

Americans rebelled at the idea of managed care. Care is something that

should be given unconditionally and without concern for costs or

profits. It is the same with food. Americans want their food ’natural’ -

they don’t want organisms cooked up in a lab finding their way into

their child’s breakfast cereal.



Unfortunately, it may be too late to discard the term; the press has

already adopted it. When President Reagan introduced the term ’Strategic

Defensive Initiative’ in 1983, the press quickly dubbed it ’Star Wars,’

a sarcastic reference to Hollywood fantasy. When the media began

’investigating’ managed care, the term quickly became associated with

consumer dissatisfaction.



For a while, some HMOs tried to drop all references to managed care and

substitute more benign terms. But it was too late. Once journalists

adopt a term, they are loath to drop it.



Topics like healthcare economics and biotechnology are complex, and the

details put most readers to sleep. To get them interested, reporters

turn to tragic, personal anecdotes. Most of these will prove nothing at

all scientifically, but they will scare the hell out of people. It is

early in the debate about GM foods, but already the single biggest news

event is an anecdote about monarch butterflies dying in the cornfields

of the Midwest. I don’t remember who funded that study or where it

appeared.



Those details don’t matter. What lingers is the dead butterflies.



If the GM food proponents try and win their case by talking about the

need to solve world hunger, they will lose. The average suburbanite

doesn’t care. But he does care about his children. What would make a

compelling anecdote? Maybe a child with leukemia has been cured after

eating a GM food. That’s the kind of story that would resonate with the

public and legislators.



- Jim Harris is a healthcare PR counselor in Los Angeles.



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