Monsanto confronts devilish public image problem “By JENNY HOPKINSON”


Found on a US website called Politico is this sychophantic drivel. So I “wrote in the margins” and it made me feel better and now I’ll put it here for much the same reason.

“Monsanto is the agriculture world’s prince of darkness, spreading its demonic genetically modified seeds on fields all over the earth. Or at least that’s the case if you believe the likes of HBO talk-show host Bill Maher, the hazmat suit-wearing activists in Occupy Monsanto or any of a growing number of biotechnology haters. [Already one suspects the authoress has a certain bias!]

For years the St. Louis-based company has ignored such critics. [It has? Don’t you believe it. It’s just not publicly met up to the criticism. ] But now the biotech giant is attempting a public relations makeover. [And so still not addressing concerns.]

In recent months the company has shaken up its senior public relations staff, upped its relationship with one of the nation’s largest public relations firms and helped launch a website designed to combat the fallacies surrounding genetically modified organisms. [“What it sees as the fallacies….” is correct journalism.]

And, most importantly, it is recognizing biotechnology has a public image problem.

Monsanto has “been absolutely riveted and focused on giving technology and tools to farmers to improve their productivity and yield and we haven’t spent nearly the time we have needed to on talking to consumers and talking to social media and really intercepting this [opposition to biotechnology]”, Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for the company, conceded recently.

He was paying a visit to the offices of POLITICO and other DC area journals as part of what many in public relations would call a “charm offensive.”

“There are loud voices on one end that don’t like the technology and there are people like myself on the other side that are advocates and fortunately most of the people are in the middle”  Fraley said. “If you talk to the average consumer, biotech is not on the top 10 list of food safety issues, once you get through sugar and salt and all of those other issues.  [Most people think very little about the source or composition of their food intake at all – which is the real issue here.] So I think there is an opportunity to reframe that conversation.” [I don’t think you have any intension to engage people in conversation, Mr Fralet.]

And  Monsanto’s top scientist, a recent winner of the World Food Prize, remains hopeful, however. [This sentence just dropped in. I’ve moved it from before the last paragraph, but it’s still irrelevant. I think she put it in to point out getting the prize!]

Sources familiar with the company have taken notice of the changes, observing that key officials in the previous Monsanto regime were better known “for keeping their heads in the sand” and not engaging on challenges to the company and biotechnology.

Focusing on serving the agriculture industry with high-yield crops, feeding the world and making a steady profit for its shareholders has served Monsanto well in recent times. But the ostrich approach to public relations has not yielded dividends for the company’s image. [High yield? I don’t think so. Just low labour input, very high technology requirement so expensive to produce. Feeding the World? You gotta be joking – but that is the upcoming battle ground, for sure.]

Monsanto was declared “the most evil corporation of the year” in early 2011 by Earlier this year the company [was] confronted [by] an international “March on Monsanto” Facebook campaign.

Such negative attention, the company observes in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission report, could influence future policy decisions: “The degree of public acceptance or perceived public acceptance of our biotechnology products can affect our sales and results of operations by affecting planting approvals, regulatory requirements and customer purchase decisions,” Monsanto says.

For evidence of what’s at stake, consider the 26 states that considered legislation in 2013 that would require the labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. Many are expected to look at the issue again in 2014. The ballot initiatives have been close: California voters rejected a GMO labelling measure in 2012 by a margin of just 2.82 percent; and Washingtonians did the same in November in a vote that came down to just a 2.16 percent difference.

Monsanto has fought these attempts to create labelling regulations every step of the way. [That is, for several years ie not a recent realisation of the problem.]

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association — one of the many groups that attacks Monsanto’s reputation [“reputation”? Products, you mean!] on a regular basis — remains sceptical that any new public relations strategy can make a difference.

“Monsanto patents seeds and enforces those patents by suing farmers; we support farmers’ right to save seeds,” she says. “Monsanto sells agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered seeds designed to increase the use of pesticides; we support pesticide – and GMO – free organic farming. Monsanto has focused on the seeds that are primarily used to grow animal feed for factory farms; we support farms that raise grass-fed animals on pasture.

“We know, as many experts have proven, that organic and pasture-based agriculture is the only way to feed the world and turn back climate change, so, we aren’t optimistic about the promises Monsanto has made about the potential benefits of GMOs.”

But Aaron Perlut, a founder and managing partner of Elasticity, a St. Louis-based consulting firm specializing in reputation management, still thinks Monsanto’s shift toward engaging in the conversation is an important development. [She goes on, not pausing to discuss the Organic movement’s views.]

“Typically when I counsel large companies in crisis I would suggest having a reasonable discussion because public opinion tends to side with reasonable parties even in a challenging argument,” Perlut says.

“I think that if Monsanto is willing to have an open and more transparent conversation about their business they can only improve in the eyes of many of their detractors. There are no doubt questions over the risks of doing that…but by not engaging in an open conversation, you simply allow your detractors to own the conversation about your brand and take it where they would like.” [So GMOs is a “brand” to this guy!]

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles declined to expand on the company’s specific public relations efforts. [“We’re doing PR work – but we’re not telling you how or what we’re doing. How sneaky and scary is that? Probably should call it Social Engineering – which is in keeping with their other “products”] However, he confirmed that Gerald Steiner, the long-time executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs, retired earlier this fall after more than 30-years with the company, and has been replaced by Jesus Madrazo, the former head of Monsanto’s international corporate affairs shop

Quarles said that both Steiner, who will stay on with the company as a consultant, and Madrazo “are big believers in” the importance of “continuing the dialogue and engaging and having people better understand what we do.”

However, a source familiar with Monsanto, says the appointment of Madrazo to the company’s top PR job is “having a lot to do with” the new approach.

Monsanto also has recently scaled up its relationship with FleishmanHillard, one of the nation’s biggest public relations firms, to take on a new international campaign, according to the Holmes Report, an information service following the public relations industry.

For some idea about the theme behind future potential PR campaigns, one need only review a series of videos recently produced for the company in which it promotes its contributions to America’s farms, the job market and the wide array of food choices available. The videos also play up Monsanto’s focus on sustainable agriculture.

Among Monsanto’s most visible public outreach initiatives is its participation in GMO Answers, a website launched in September by the Council for Biotechnology Information in order to better engage in the public debate on biotechnology – part of an industry-wide effort with BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, to defend the science. Visitors to the site can ask questions relating to all facets of GMOs, which are then answered by independent [! Oh yeah?!] and company experts, according to the site.

Part of the aim of the GMO Answers website is to get out the science behind the technology and discredit [Oh look, it’s that word again! If you can realistically and honestly disprove an assertion, then, fine. But “To discredit” in modern terminology means to “frame, humiliate and make a public hate figure of” an individual target victim. As in Andy Wakefield.] inaccurate information that is shared by opponents, says Camille Ryan, a research associate in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, who serves as one of the experts responding to questions on the site. [So clearly NOT  independent] Opponents [of] Monsanto and biotechnology — which Ryan describes as “a small-but-loud group” — have been successful because they have managed to harness social media to make their case, she says.

To combat that [note its “combat” not “reply to”], companies and biotechnology proponents in academia need to put a more human face on their outreach methods [Oh how sweet “You will love our gorgeous and so caring technologies…..”] . Accomplishing that will take time, Ryan admits, but the effort needs to start now to manage problems, otherwise it leaves “other actors with other agendas to fill in the gaps. If we don’t step up we end up stepping back.”

Gregory Conko, executive director and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees with the notion of putting a human face on public relations efforts, but that face shouldn’t belong to an industry executive, given the public distrust of corporations. Rather, he suggests promoting scientific experts in academia to get that message out. [Buying them, corrupting their independence. But, hey, academics are cheap, are they not and wholly without conscience. Say we establish a few Chairs in Agricultural Bioproductivity, stuff like that.]

“Some scientists are shouting from the roof top” extolling the safety and benefits of GMO crops, “but they can’t afford a megaphone,” Conko said. “Biotech and food companies need to create a megaphone for scientists to shout through.”

Another option, which is being piloted by Syngenta, is to partner with food security and conservation organizations, and set corporate benchmarks for environmental and agricultural sustainability that include the use of biotechnology. [You cannot set up such with predetermined outcomes as sustainable can most certainly say biotechnology is destroying biodiversity, creating huge natural inbalances and many toxic legacies.] In September, the Swiss-based company launched its “Good Growth Plan,” which sets a series of commitments on sustainably increasing yields, reducing waste, promoting biodiversity and addressing health and poverty with related benchmarks to be met by 2020. [How about abolishing GMOs and mono-culture agriculture, breaking up all the industrial farms, resettling the rural environment, so increasing productivity, health, social wealth (as opposed to corporate wealth) and re-establishing a link twixt urban and rural environments?]

Syngenta is partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the Rainforest Alliance, among other groups, to provide input on its plan, set goals and ensure buy in.

“How do you get people on your side? I think you have to build coalitions of people who may have a shared perception,” Michael Mack, CEO of Syngenta, told POLITICO in a recent interview.

However, not everyone thinks Monsanto needs to worry much about its public image.

“You can always tell a leader by the arrows in their back,” says Val Giddings, a company stockholder and the former VP of government relations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. [Yeah but the arrows are there because s/he’s not a leader but a hated dictator.]

And Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based communications consultancy Dezenhall Resources, suggests Monsanto not waste energy at least on trying to convert its biggest opponents.

“Are you ever going to get people who despise you to like you?” he asks. “In my experience the answer is almost always no. To twist yourself into pretzels to attempt to get the people who oppose you to like you is a meaningless exercise.” [To understand the reasons that you are despised is crucial anywhere on this planet. To understand you could be wrong is also crucial]

They may have a point. Bad public relations seems to have made little dent on Monsanto’s bottom line. The company finished its 2013 fiscal year on Sept. 30 with net income of $2.5 billion on net sales of $14.9 billion — a 25 percent increase over its 2012 net income and an 11 percent improvement in sales. Its stock was trading at $113.91 per share at the close of business on Nov. 26, more than $20 higher than what it was trading at a year ago.  [So it’s making money, so there’s no problem. Oh my, how dysfunctional and disconnected society has become.]



About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Global politics, GM crops, Green politics, Monsanto. Bookmark the permalink.

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