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
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
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
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
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.