Let's say your company makes a massive technical advance, one that both improves the quality of the product you sell and has the potential to solve one of the world's most intractable problems. You'd be ready to spend millions to promote it, right? Well, not if you're in the genetically modified (GM) food business. Then you spend $4.5 million on a campaign to keep your new technology secret.
Faced with a ballot initiative that calls on food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients, the Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law is trying to sell Oregonians on the idea that such labeling would cost millions in "government bureaucracy and red tape."
The campaign's premise is a lie, of course. The industry isn't concerned about red tape - or if it is, it's a secondary issue. What truly worries the industry - the reason it has resisted labeling since GM foods were introduced a decade ago - is that consumers will select unmodified foods if given a choice. So the campaign is about denying them that choice, but calling the group the Coalition Against Informed Consumers probably sounded like a bad idea.
Faced with labeling demands, the GM food industry falls back on the fact that the FDA considers labels unnecessary. After I discussed this subject in a recent column, a Monsanto rep pointed out (correctly) that the company does label its products, which it sells to farmers rather than consumers, but the FDA "has determined that the biotech crops currently grown and subsequent ingredients don't need to be labeled because biotech food is no different than conventional food."
But, the FDA's position notwithstanding, there is clearly a segment of the public that wants to know how its food is made, and it is hard to see any moral basis on which companies would deny that right. Apparently, the increased corporate transparency we've heard about doesn't encompass this kind of information. Instead, the industry is essentially saying, "Trust us, you don't need to know."
But at the same time, it is also saying, "We don't trust you. We think you're so stupid that you won't be able to use the labeling information intelligently. You're not smart enough to understand the science or to process our arguments. Instead, you will be influenced by hysterical Luddites who want to ban our product, and you won't buy it."
But 21st-century PR isn't about controlling the flow of information or deciding what information the public has a right to. It's about putting information in context. If the GM food industry doesn't believe its PR people are smart enough to explain its products' benefits, it should either hire new PR people or get a new product.
Fighting against an informed public only creates the impression that it has a sinister secret to hide.
? Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.