AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com
Comments from a professional communications person in this industry.
There have been a few recent observations on public relations as it relates
to the cacophony of biotech issues, a rather large category to get a handle
One cannot fail to see a large part of the group seemingly baffled that the
voice of science goes unheard in the great biotech debate. Pretty natural
feeling, the frustration.
A few thoughts, however. It may not seem like it, but journalists and lay
people will listen to scientists. Has biotech lost its glitter? Have
activists won the day? So far they have made a lot of noise, but most
people are apathetic and it is extremely challenging to foist any point of
view on society. It's more effective, it appears, to instead threaten food
branders with messy issues that hurt their brand appeal.
Consumer goods companies will carefully protect brand identities worth
billions. Like with baby food, where there's no room for error. (Imagine
being the subject in business school case studies as the infamous person who
supervised the demise of McDonalds brand . Yikes!) Brands are delicate
creatures of trust (an emotion) not logic (the realm of science and
Signs of rationality exist. Midwest governors defend biotech because
science says it is safe. PepsiCo shareholders hold their ground. New FDA
regulations appear designed to enhance public confidence.
It is helpful to see signs of acceptance of biotech by scientists,
policymakers, global conglomerates, etc. Anti-technology activists may be
influential, and they have been very smart in their campaigns, but in the
end this issue will be decided by that great mass of ordinary people who buy
Here are some points from a communications standpoint. They are offered in
good faith, although it would ultimately be of more value to obtain
marketing research on consumer message testing to refine what is emotionally
powerful for ordinary people.
-Keep it simple. Use simple words, and clear ideas, to convey the idea that
food products resulting from biotechnology are improved. Not modified, but
better. Coin a new term for these product categories -- "improved" would be
a key descriptor. Scientists, industry, regulators and growers may be
interested in the process of applying biotech to manufactured products, but
the consumer will only connect with benefits relating to how it is better
for them. To effectively communicate, it has to look true, smell true, be
true and be interesting. Next to lying, the biggest sin in communications is
to be boring.
-Be benefit oriented. What could these benefits be? No mold. Cleaner,
safer, cheaper. Longer-lasting on the shelf. Healthier to fry in. More
vitamins, proteins, lower fats. Better for babies, children, mothers, pets,
animals. Edible vaccines so we can get rid of the needle. As facts emerge
from testing, place them front and center in any public statement.
-Primary and secondary features. Environmental impact may be of secondary
importance to the consumer, compared to what they eat. But sometimes things
that are of little or no difference in terms of primary benefits are decided
on the basis of secondary features. For example, both cars transport you,
but this oneone has better brakes [safety] and that one has nicer seats
[comfort]. So in what emotionally relevant way is biotech better for the
environment? Is it higher productivity and land conservation? It is
transformation of damaging farm practices in developing countries? This is
worth some debate, discussion and research.
-Address the risk. Our government agencies, scientists and industry work
hard to keep the risk extremely low that these foods could hurt someone or
damage the environment. How many tests are required? What is the cost of
those tests? How many products get killed in the lab because they might
cause an allergy, or breed a new weed? Don't we eat these foods everyday --
is anyone getting sick? These facts are productions of rational thought,
yet can still foster trust and comfort.
-Expect imperfaction. The world is full of misstatements. Avoid the trap
of ad hominem attacks on opponents of biotech. First, it doesn't work.
Second, it's a waste of opportunity when you are in the limelight. Third,
scientists are "listened to" because they are trained to avoid fallacies.
We count on science in part to provide a genuine social service that
corrects lies and points out unintended consequences.
-Characterizations and correcting bad speech. It would be no surprise to
find a few nutcases who DO approach with zeal the idea of starving the
world into a population decline. But do we really think that most biotech
critics are moral equivalents of the grim reaper? Or are they opportunists
and followers repeating half-baked mush. Doesn't science in fact have high
road at its feet? If all biotech crop research were halted today, how many
would die in 2020? How many wild lands cut down, plowed up, to grow food.
Add 20 or 40 million acres to the global farmland base and how much water do
we use up growing crops? How much more pressure on ocean fisheries? How
much more war and pestilence? How much human potential unrealized? It is
just that stark a choice, so do not shrink from saying so -- especially with
policy makers, religious leaders, professional societies and even movie
stars. In theory, the tenants of journalism and free speech doctrine teach
that good speech will overcome bad speech. For that to work the thoughtful
must speak up and give social leaders a positive vision.
-Doomsday. Ordinary folks have big hearts, but can only handle so much
grimness. We will respond in mass mailing cards and money to a family with
quintuplets, yet we find 10 million AIDS orphans in Africa too horrific to
comprehend. For them it is perhaps enough to provide a few relevant facts
to drive home this point -- not only does this technology produce healthier,
more abundant food, for us, it is also morally imperative that we use this
intricate gift of nature to solve urgent global needs.
-Tell stories. All cultures tell stories and parables to convey complex
thoughts about our origins, the cross currents of good versus evil, courage
and fear, love and hate, etc. The mind can readily absorb stories. Tell
about something you have seen, heard or done to show the benefit and
tremendous promise of this new tool. Or use a familiar parable -- The
technology is David. The fear of it is Goliath. Society is choking on
"information" and more information does not equal more knowledge. Analyze
it, simplify it, humanize it, make it meaningful and impactful.
-The social debate is valuable. The technology is amoral; it's people who
work with good or ill purpose. Challenges will help ensure it is regulated
wisely, used in helpful ways, produces marketable products, can be valued by
taxpayers or consumers who pay for it, and will in the end make the world a
better place. There are many voices speaking for this technology and its
benefits. More will. Everyone has a vested interest in these benefits,
they just don't all know it yet. There are necessary roles for all
interested segments to play, public or private, research or industry, policy
maker or news reporter.
-Controversy. This is just one element of news, as defined by journalists.
Importance is another. Relevance is yet another. Timeliness is a biggie.
Authority is important in selecting sources, but it is slightly broader than
how academia may define it. This issue is controversial, timely and
important, carrying elevated news value. Jaded reporters may struggle to
make it relevant, and that's where science can help, and will go the easy
route unless their understanding is enhanced. Unlike some, I think it likely
that anit-biotech forces will be successful in the keeping their views on
the scope in the U.S., if for no reason other than because they have shown
some sophisticated strategy to date. Most of them want to a good job and
want to tell readers/viewers the truth. They will call you if they think th
at you will tell them the truth. Expect maybe half of your message to come
through the filter.
-Stay on point. It is interesting to sort through how objections to modern
agriculture connect to Silent Spring/DDT/more malaria, nuclear energy, the
hypocrisy of protectionist policies fed by feverish obfuscation, the ironies
of organic food preferences, how organic farmers spray bt but lobby to keep
it out of the plant, the inability of companies to recover product
disparagement damages in the US court system, the socio-religious-elitist
linkages between the green movement and otherwise distasteful ideologies,
the irony of a human society congenitally seeding its own misery, and all
the other side tracks. But in public discourse, stay on point. Is the food
safe or not? Is it better for the family? For society? For the
environment? For the miserable.
Imagine conveying this message, using facts -- Be assured, the crops are
improved. The food is/will be better. We are being careful to make the
world a safer place, not just for you and me but also for many people who
are suffering. And some of the most exciting advances from this technology
are yet to come.
Vice President/Bader Rutter & Associates