MARKET FOCUS AGRICULTURAL PR: Genetically engineered crops are a PR pro's potential nightmare. Are we only limited to a defensive role in talking about GE foods?

The agricultural PR world got a wake-up call from an unlikely source recently?the monarch butterfly.

The agricultural PR world got a wake-up call from an unlikely source recently - the monarch butterfly.

This past spring, a Cornell University researcher's discovery that genetically engineered corn might harm the tiny butterfly received major play in The New York Times, Time and Business Week, among others.

Until the butterfly flap unfolded, genetically engineered (GE) foods had been getting little public attention in the States. Between 25% and 40% of all the corn grown in the US is genetically engineered, according to various industry estimates.

Roughly half of the US acreage devoted to corn, cotton, and soybeans are growing GE crops. One study estimates the value of this year's biotech harvest at dollars 4 billion, growing to dollars 20 billion in five years and dollars 75 billion by 2020.

The companies involved have been concentrating their PR efforts on farmers, trying to convince them to use the hi-tech seeds involved with GE corn, soybeans, cotton, and other products. 'We're in the seed business, we're selling a product to farmers,' says Tony Minnichsoffer, communication manager for Novartis Seed (Minneapolis).

But the butterfly study will likely change all that. Says Minnichsoffer: 'We need to work together as an industry.' The US food industry, which includes more than 5,000 individual trade associations, needs to broaden PR efforts for GE foods to all parts of the food chain, including consumers, if it wants to prevent the type of public backlash GE products have sparked in other countries. 'It is not crisis mode yet, but the potential is certainly there in this country,' says Marge Ferroli, managing director in the corporate practice at Burson-Marsteller (Chicago).

Britain, still recovering from years of worry about its beef supply after its Mad Cow Disease scare earlier this decade, has been a PR disaster area for GE foods. British papers have dubbed them 'Frankenstein Foods,' and attempts by the likes of Monsanto to deflect criticism have only triggered more negative PR. 'The British consumer (does not) believe government when it comes to food safety,' says Marian Salzman, director of the Brand Futures Group at Young & Rubicam (NY).

Germany has been another trouble spot for GE products. Consumers have also expressed concerns about GE products in countries like Japan and Brazil, reports Cos Mallozzi, president of Gibbs & Soell (NY).

In brands we trust

In the States, meanwhile, GE foods have been largely a non-issue. US consumers tend to trust the major food brands they deal with, explains Y&R's Salzman. 'Some Americans trust the traditional brands more than they do government,' she says. But the attention given the butterfly study shows the situation could change in an instant. Food safety stories get major media play in these days of e coli and salmonella concerns. Witness Coke's problems in Europe of late.

As a result, Ag PR pros need to start laying the groundwork now to garner public acceptance of GE products. They need to put into place early warning systems that will be available for studies and activist groups questioning their products. Seed company officials need to be trained to deal with the consumer press, a sector of the media many of them are not comfortable with. Seed companies also need to publicize the research they've done, enlist third-party spokespeople and tout the opinion of government food regulators about the safety of their products.

Such regulatory approval still carries weight with US consumers, says Ferroli. In the States, 'the public generally expects to be taken care of by the regulatory bodies,' she says. Says Sue Snider, a food & nutrition specialist with the Delaware Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Delaware (Newark, DE): 'Be up front about what kind of testing was done. People don't understand that they (GE crops) have gone though a lot of testing.' Snider sees a small portion of the population that will never accept GE foods and another portion that will accept them without question. For PR firms, 'it's the continuum in the middle who need to be targeted,' she says.

And farmers themselves should be enlisted to tout GE products, since they still garner positive response from American consumers. Food companies also need to be very precise about what the meaning of safe is in regard to these products.

The law of unintended consequences means studies like the butterfly report are likely to surface, focusing on something company researchers may never have considered. 'We've got to learn to define that word safe,' says Jerry Harrington, sales public relations manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred International (DesMoines, IA). Agri-chemical makers have been doing that for years, he says, telling farmers their fertilizer and pesticide products are safe only if used as directed. On the food side, though, 'to date, we haven't had a credible need to define the word safe. Our government deems products safe,' Harrington says.

The ultimate PR battleground will be the consumer, not the farmers with whom the ag giants involved in this growing industry normally communicate. 'The job of educating consumers about these issues is being left undone,' says Bob Rumpza, group VP of the agribusiness practice with Shandwick (Minneapolis). 'The industry will have to come together in a more aggressive way to do consumer education.'

Such efforts are already beginning. The DC-based Grocery Manufacturers of America, for example, is planning a major PR campaign for GE foods.

'We want to make sure what happened in European countries doesn't happen here,' says Gene Grabowski, GMA's VP, communications.

Some of the companies involved have received the message. Pioneer, which is being bought by DuPont, knew about the butterfly study before it was published and developed an action plan for it, which included posting answers to issues raised on its web site, says Harrington.

Gearing up for GE

PR firms that work with ag clients are gearing up to handle more genetically tied PR. Fleishman-Hillard, which expects to do about dollars 10 million in ag-related PR this year, sees about one-quarter of its business coming from crisis preparedness and issues relating to GE foods, says Ronald D. Arp, SVP and a senior partner with F-H's agribusiness division (Kansas City, MO). Arp advises clients to get out front on the issue with a three-pronged approach:

  • Anticipate potential issues
  • Drill with simulated situations to raise the crisis instinct within a company
  • Quickly deal with brush fires such as the butterfly study

Tim Oliver, a senior counselor and principal with Morgan & Myers (Milwaukee), cut his agri-PR teeth earlier this decade while working for a seed company that was introducing a biotech squash product. 'We did a very good job of going up and down the chain' talking to growers, university scientists, produce marketers and the GMA, Oliver recalls.

'Make sure that you have expectations in line upfront' about the product's potential, he adds.

Oliver, whose firm has worked with ag clients like Monsanto, also advises clients to get involved with research studies early on, even supplying seeds for such studies. 'You would rather be in a position to cooperate,' he says.

'Part of the challenge is to be able to counsel clients that reasonable questions do deserve reasonable answers,' adds Max Wenck, another M&M senior counselor and principal who also works on ag accounts. 'This is unplowed ground for a lot of companies.'

Another challenge is to tailor a company's message to local markets.

'If you ignore cultural sensitivities, you're in trouble,' says Kim Kumiega, an EVP and deputy general manager with Edelman's reputation management practice (Chicago). For example, company-sponsored research, which might carry weight in the US, may backfire when used in Britain. This recently happened to Monsanto.

Pioneer's Harrington believes PR for GE foodstuffs should stress 'the value message': namely that such products are needed to adequately feed a growing world population at a time when the amount of land devoted to agriculture continues to shrink worldwide. 'What we have to do is produce more food on decreasing amounts of land,' he says.

The less-land-more-people dilemma will mean more, not fewer, high-yielding GE crops in the future. At Pioneer, for example, the early 1990s saw a dozen hybrids introduced each year. By 1997, that was up to 38 hybrids in one year. And this season, 60 have been rolled out. 'It's a reflection of the new technology,' Harrington says.

That's going to mean plenty of new work for ag PR specialists. Says F-H's Arp: 'It would be inappropriate for Greenpeace to be the only messenger on this technology.' More programs like GMA's planned dollars 1 million program will be needed. 'It's a far broader issue worldwide than I think one company can take on,' says Shandwick's Rumpza. 'And it's an issue that will require ongoing consumer education, a task better suited to PR than advertising.'

Agricultural PR firms 1998

Rank Company Agricultural Income (dollars)

1 Gibbs & Soell* 7,111,600

2 Fleishman-Hillard 6,026,000

3 Shandwick International 5,689,000

4 Rowland Worldwide 3,505,000

5 Morgan & Myers 2,800,000

6 Creswell, Munsell, Fultz & Zirbel* 1,635,000

7 Dudnyk Public Relations 1,052,000

8 Ogilvy Public Relations 859,300

9 Edelman Public Relations 774,429

10 Charlston/Orwig 700,000

11 Geduldig & Ferguson* 672,538

12 Martin Public Relations 600,000

13 BSMG Worldwide 419,000

14 Nuffer, Smith & Tucker* 390,520

15 Cramer Krasselt 315,000

16 Zeppos & Associates 250,000

17 Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger* 171,663

18 The Standing Partnership* 142,745

19 GCI/APCO 100,000

20 Deen & Black 91,000

Total 33,367,052

Most figures based on PRWeek Top 200, 1998

* Source CPRF

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in