FleishmanHillard CEO defends Monsanto work

"A lot of the recent attention has mischaracterized our work," John Saunders said in a statement.

NEW YORK: FleishmanHillard president and CEO John Saunders defended his agency’s work for Monsanto, which included compiling lists about stakeholders, in a statement posted to the firm’s website on Tuesday morning.

Saunders said in the statement that while Fleishman is "open to critical discourse, a lot of the recent attention has mischaracterized our work."

"Corporations, NGOs and other clients rightfully expect our firm to help them understand diverse perspectives before they engage." he said. "To do so, we and every other professional communications agency gather relevant information from publicly available sources. Those planning documents are fundamental to outreach efforts."

The statement was Fleishman’s first lengthy defense of its work since the story broke. Previously, the agency issued brief email statements stating that it was proud of its work with Bayer and that it conducts itself "in keeping with the professional standards and established practices of our industry."

Saunders added that "we realize and accept that some will never agree with our clients’ points of view."

"That is both normal and healthy. Diversity of opinion through discussion and debate is the bedrock of a well-functioning democracy," he said. "It would be a disservice to society and to the policy-making process to stifle important information just because it may not be popular."

The Omnicom Group agency has been accused of improperly compiling lists of stakeholders for a European campaign supporting the herbicide Roundup, which has been called a carcinogen in lawsuits. Roundup was developed by Monsanto prior to Bayer’s acquisition of the company last year.

French media outlet Le Monde has investigated Monsanto’s PR efforts and found its journalists, as well as politicians, researchers and others, on lists organized by their stance on Roundup. Le Monde filed a complaint with the French government, which launched an investigation into the matter. French law closely governs the gathering and storing of information about people based on political views.

Bayer put its work with external agencies on hold and hired a law firm to investigate the controversy. The company no longer works with Fleishman on PR and public affairs, but does collaborate with the firm on marketing. Bayer declined to comment on Saunders’ statement and referred to its own previous statement.

Saunders also defended the firm’s ethics, noting that employees undergo ethics training, are required to report ethical issues and can refuse to work on accounts if they personally object.

"FleishmanHillard is proud to support robust societal dialogues and informed debate on important issues," Saunders wrote. "We will always do so based on the highest standard of ethics. That is how our firm began more than 70 years ago and it will continue to define us."

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