From: Reclaim The Streets

EuropaBio - The leaked PR documents

Part 1




Back to Index

Europe's most powerful biotechnology industry has contracted the government and public affairs PR agency, Burson Marsteller, to manage the crisis that the biotech market is facing as a result of the widespread resistance to genetic engineering and its products in this part of the world. While little known to the public, Burson Marsteller has developed a notorious reputation as high level political cover-up specialists. It has worked along side oppressive regimes in Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea and has provided the PR strategy for such controversies as the BSE crisis in the UK, the Exxon-Valdez oilspill and the Bhopal tragedy.

EuropaBio's move to contract a PR agency specialising in high-level political cover-ups is a strong indication of the fact that EuropaBio is intent on covering up, indeed smothering the issues at the heart of the genetic engineering debate - risks to the environment, human health and corporate control over the world's genetic resources.

In the PR strategy proposal from January (leaked to Greenpeace), Burson Marsteller outlines a scheme aimed at weathering the storm of protest in Europe. The document is important for a number of reasons:

CLEARLY, the barrage of advertising assailing the public today indicates that this programme has already been activated by EuropaBio members. Public information on how to interpret the aggressive ideology concealed beneath the "symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and self-esteem" has become more urgent.

The files to follow in subsequent mails are

  1. the leaked document: Communications programme for EuropaBio, January 1997.

  2. an article by Carmello Ruiz on the trackrecord of Burson Marsteller

The leaked document which is Burson Marsteller's PR strategy proposal to EuropaBio is an 18 page document, so you will receive it in 2 separate parts. Part one starting below.

January 1997
Prepared by Burston Marsteller
Government and Public Affairs


Contents of this proposal 1. Burston Marsteller Government and Public Affairs Europe submit this proposal in response to a threefold request from EUROPABIO for:

1) A communications strategy and programme responding to the urgent circumstances now confronting agri-food bioindustries in Europe;

2) A communications programme for the first European Bioindustry Congress for late June in Amsterdam;

3) A long-term communications strategy and programme.

2. Proposals are made for each of these specific requests (including very preliminary fee estimates for the first two). But it is self-evident that each of these initiatives must complement and contribute to the other two. Moreover, each will (we assume) involve many of the same individuals operating through EuropaBio at both the strategy level and the operational level. We therefore preface our specific proposals with a discussion of the common strategic principal which we believe should apply to all three.

Burston Marsteller and Bioindustry issues

3. The Burston Marsteller Government & Public Affairs practice is a single worldwide team of public affairs specialists (not a network of all-purpose national PR subsidiaries). In Europe, we cover the institutions of the European Union (via Robinson Linton Associates, a fully integrated member of the team), all 15 member states of the European Union, Norway and Switzerland, a growing number of Central and Eastern European countries, and a growing number of CIS countries. No other government & public affairs communications group is constituted as a single, borderless business entity across Europe, and none has B-M's reach and depth.

4. Within the practice, there functions a dedicated "bio-issues network", linking together all team members with experience and involvement in these issues. leadership responsibility for the network rests with Jean-Christophe Alquier in Paris, In Europe, this experience and involvement is particularly developed at the EU level (Robinson Linton Associates), as well as Germany, France, Denmark, the U.K. and Belgium. On-going client relationships attached to one or more of these (and several other) offices include a number of EuropaBio members.

5. In addition to our Public Affairs Practice, Burston-Marsteller has a number of other fully constituted practices functioning on the same single team basis around the world. Notable among these in the EuropaBio context is our Health Care practice, which is the acknowledged communications services leader for these sectors in Europe and worldwide. Client relationships likewise exist with certain EuropaBio members through this sister practice, and B-M service teams routinely include individuals from both practices.

The basis for this proposal

6. This proposal draws primarily on the cumulative experience of the B-M Public Affairs practice, and more particularly on that of our "bio-issues network", as well as on relevant experience from our Health Care colleagues.

7. We also note that B-M colleagues in Brussels have been associated with EUFIC (The European Food Information Council) since its inception, a grouping which includes a number of EuropaBio members and which continues to devote part of its efforts to biotechnology issues in the food industry. This experience also underlies these proposals.

8. Finally by way of introduction, we note that some of the key judgments shaping these proposals are based on very recent professional research into public attitudes in Europe toward biotechnology in general and biotechnology in the food chain in particular. We have been accorded access to the results of this work and permission to make generic reference to it in this proposal, but are not yet in a position to cite it specifically. Despite this limitation we stress here the enormous value for our own further understanding and insight of having seen it.

Indeed, we cannot over-emphasize the vital role such research plays in conceiving and executing any effective public communications effort. Flying without its literally flying blind. Moreover, progress in changing public attitudes can only be measured objectively against an initial baseline - and such measurements are the only reliable criteria for judging success.

Just as no successful company guesses what consumers think of its products, so no serious politician today operates without on-going research - and no effective advocacy group does either. But allocation of the necessary resources to attitude research remains the exception rather than the rule in industry's public affairs campaigning. This means, quite simply, that adversaries and politicians always have a good idea of what the public really thinks, but industry often doesn't. (We return to this issue in our long-term strategy proposal.)


A different approach

9. EuropaBio's antecedent organizations (SAGB and ESNBA) have over the past several years firmly established themselves as the primary representatives of European bioindustrial interests within the political and regulatory structures of Europe. Europabio now assumes this indispensible direct role in the policy-making process. But it has become self-evident that this role is no longer in itself sufficient to ensure the supportive environment Europe's bioindustries need to achieve global competitiveness through the new biotechnologies. A sustained communications strategy and programme able to generate favourable perceptions and opinions beyond the policy world is now essential.

10. We emphasise this point because it leads to the following key observation; success in this new effort will require a much different approach from the one typically used by EuropaBio in its communications to the policy world. In our experience, the key t success will be the speed to which EuropaBio members actually embrace the need for a different approach and then follow through on it.

11. The fundamental difference itself is, moreover, straightforward : in order to effect the desired changes in public perceptions and attitudes, the bioindustries must stop trying to be their own advocates. That approach often works in the policy world. It quite demonstrably hasn't worked and won't work in the sphere of public perceptions.

Basic strategy disciplines

12. We believe the four basic strategic disciplines must shape any EuropaBio communications initiative.

13. Stay off the killing field : Public issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe. As a general rule, the industry cannot be expected to prevail in public opposition to adversarial voices on these issues. Al the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these questions. (This said, the evidence also shows that some companies are perceived as more "ethical", and therefore as somewhat more credible than others. But this perception typically attaches to brands, meaning either to specific consumer products or to retail brands, an important insight which adversaries well understand and to which we return in our agri-food sector proposal).

The difficulty of course is that today adversarial voices largely dominate in the public debate and, unsurprisingly, always chose these very killing fields, because they do enjoy high public credibility and because they know that direct industry rebuttal usually feeds the story instead of killing it. Therefore, a basic discipline of EuropaBio's communications strategy must be to stay off these killing fields - no matter how provocative the invitation to enter u[on them may be.

14. This is by no means to say, however, that this ground can be left undefended. Deep-seated perceptions of the risk will kill any product. But the industry must accept that it is for those charged with the public trust in this area - politicians and regulators - to assure the public that bio-industry products are safe. (This leads to a very specific problem for bioindustries in Europe today: the evidence clearly shows that Europeans do not trust their regulators in bio-product sectors. This is different from the U.S., where the EPA and FDA do enjoy widespread public confidence (which does not, however, extend to Europe). We return to this issue as well in the proposals which follow.)

15. Create positive perceptions : It no doubt seems banal to assert that until strong positive public perceptions of bio-products are created in Europe, there will be no effective counterweight to the negative perceptions generated by adversaries on their chosen killing fields. It may seem doubly banal to add that positive perceptions derive from perceived benefits. Nevertheless, all successful public affairs communications is predicated on these two apparent self-evidences. Understanding the words isn't difficult. Obtaining objective insight into what they really mean for a given group or individual or group, and then having the discipline, organisation and determination to really apply them - that is what makes the difference.

Fight fire with fire :

16. Stories - not issues : for EuropaBio to make the transition from effective policy interlocutor to effective public communicator, it is essential to shift from issues-based communications to stories-based communications. There are no issues-oriented media with any broad appeal, and the selling of complex issues coverage is a difficult task in any event because it contains little or no news value. Good stories, on the other hand, go around the world in minutes. That's the way adversaries play. That's the way industry must play.

17. Products - not technologies : stories must, moreover, focus largely on the products of the new technologies, because they are the only way most people connect (directly or indirectly)to the benefits of the technology. (To recall : when SAGB published its communication on the environmental benefits of biotechnologies a few years ago, the biggest media up-take was on the specific product examples - and among them the most interest was generated by ... household detergents !)

18. Beneficiaries - not benefits : product stories (as well as other sorts of stories) must focus on benefits, but these benefits must be personified. People stories are always the most compelling (recall the presence in Brussels during the Parliamentary vote on biotech patents of the fellow who claims to have had his genes ripped off without his permission.)

19. Symbols - not logic : symbols are central to politics because they connect to emotions, not logic. Adversaries of biotechnology are highly skilled in the cultivation of symbols eliciting instant emotions of fear, rage and resentment. Bioindustries need to respond in similar terms - with symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and self-esteem.

Create service-based media relations

20. Most reporters and editors do not have a personal agenda when it comes to coverage of biotechnology and bioindustries. Rather, as with any other beat, they are preoccupied with producing salable material under extreme deadline pressure. Deadlines dominate journalism, and largely shape what is reported.

21. EuropaBio must turn itself into the journalist's best and most reliable continuing source of biotechnology/bioindustries inspiration and information - the first-stop help-desk where they get not industry propaganda but practical, editor-pleasing, deadline-beating connect to interesting stories and personalities - even adversarial - relevant to their readerships.



22. A well-orchestrated effort to change current perceptions of agri-food biotechnology in Europe is urgent. there is no point in gradually ramping up a longer-term EuropaBio communications programme only to find that in this key sector public attitudes, public policies and commercial practices have hardened beyond recall.

23. Adversaries remain determined, and their two-fold strategy remains clear : to split the food industry and to balkanise the single market. 1997 will be a critical year, particularly because entry into force of the EU Novel Foods Regulation will precipitate a new and potentially divisive political debate over safety and transparency, as could the European Commission's review of Directive 90/220/EEC. At the same time, supplies of certified non-GMO soya will become difficult to obtain. It may also be anticipated that over the next 12 months the first genetically modified crop varieties destined for the food chain will become available for planting in Europe. That could offer new opportunities for adversaries to stage media events.

A front-loaded campaign

24. In view of these circumstances, we proposed an intensive, front-loaded campaign to begin as soon as practically possible and to run up through and slightly beyond the June Congress.

25. At that point, progress can be reviewed through analysis of media coverage over the period, and also the EuropaBio public attitude survey proposed as part of a longer term communications programme.

Strategic framework / current perceptions and attitudes

26. Our proposed agri-food campaign strategy is conceived around the vertical industrial and commercial chain : (starting at the "bottom") technology innovators-proprietors / seed companies / farmers / commodity brokers / food companies / retail sector. it is further predicated on the following assessment of current public perceptions and attitudes (based on our own experience and the available research) :

a. Within the chain, consumer "trust" attaches (if it attaches at
all ) to product brands and retail brands; therefore, the top two
sectors of the chain are the two most effective direct channels of
communications with the consumer.

b. In contrast, research reveals no public awareness or knowledge at
all of the companies at the bottom of the chain (Monsanto, Ciba,
Sandoz, PGS, etc.) - except what adversaries have been able to put
into the public consciousness in recent months, all of which is
intended to engender fear and distrust.

c. Food itself is a powerful vector if cultural - and even political
- values virtually everywhere in Europe. but these values dffer from
country to country. And in many parts of Europe there also exists a
strong corresponding emotional attachment to idealised images of
rural society, farming and the countryside.

d. There is virtually no understanding of the real purposes of the
genetic modifications to the first crops now entering the European
market. The general perception is that it has to do with increased
profits for industry and maybe also farmers, but that it is a
perversion of nature motivated by greed at the bottom of the chain.

e. At the same, there are very strong public perceptions of risk to
human health attached to the idea of genetically modified food -
heightened in certain countries by the living memory of current
trauma of specific food-related crises (e.g., BSE; salmonella in
Scotland; cooking-oil in Spain).

f. Moreover, and to a surprising degree, the current climate of
public suspicion and resentment surrounding the arrival on the
European market of gnetically modified soya and maize is shown by
research to be rooted in the perception that dangerous, unnatural
ingredients are being forced into tradtional European food by the
American chemical industry for reasons of pure profit, against the
will of European consumers, and over the objections of at least part
of the European retailing and food sectors. This reflects, of course,
the drumbeat of adversarial media campaigning, exploiting certain
objective facts of the situation.

27. The cumulative effect of these perceptions and attitudes has been to create a perfect incubator for public outrage and resentment over the introduction of genetically modified food (the actual strength of which, however, varies across Europe). The available evidence likewise supports the classic theory that these emotions are ultimately rooted in a sense of powerlessness in the face of what are perceived to be malevolent (and foreign) forces threatening facets of life held dear.1

28. The bottom-line consequence of this is a (literal) chain-reaction in many parts of Europe from the farming sector on up the chain embracing the new technoloy is seen to be risky (and being the first to embrace is seen to be especially risky), while being seen to refuse it looks a tempting marketing strategy (clean vs. dirty)

Strategic recommendations

29. Based upon this assessment of the perceptions and attitudfes with which the agri-food interests in EuropaBio must contend, we make the following strategic recommendations for the conduct of the proposed front-loaded media campaign.

a. Companies in the food sector must be perceived by the public to
have their own independent view, voice and scope of action on the
introduction of genetically modified ingredients or organisms into
their product ranges. They must be seen to have a choice, they must
be seen to control that choice, and they must be seen to have made a

b. Food companies must also be seen to ensure that this power to
chose is passed on to the consumer. This means "transparency" -
product information made available to the consumer in some form. (We
note that EuropaBio's public statement following ratification by the
European Parliament of the EU Novel Foods concilitation tetx leads
very much in this direction.) This in itself can largely defuse the
sense of powerlessness which in large measure feeds the current
climate of resentment and rejection.

c. Retailers must also be seen to occupy a similar position of
independence vis a vis the rest of the chain - including former
manufacturers, and must likewise adopt policies of transparency
enabling consumer choise (i.e., empowerment). (Nobody instinctively
understands this better than retailers themselves, which explains
their recent public positioning on these issues.)

d. By the same token, the supply-side sectors farther down the chain
must not themselves be heard to speak on behalf of the food and
retail sectoprs, nor behave in any way which is seen to deny those
sectors either their own independence of action or their ability to
communicate with their customers.

(This is the great public perceptions pitfall in the "bottom-up" argument that separation is impossible. That argument is seen as a direct chalennges to the power and independence of retailers and food companies. Nobody believes that retailers and the food companies cannot force separation if they collectively decide to. That perception places those sectors in an invidious position with their customers and with adversaries are attmetping to split those sectors, and it works.)

e. Rather, the task of the sectors at the bottom of the chain is to help make it possible for both the food and retail sectors to explain their up-take of GM foods in a way which at least does not violate the values of their customers, and at best responds positively to them. If that condition is met, and provided also that the products are both safe and seen to be safe, the great majority of consumers will have no further cause for outrage, and no reason to reject these products.

f. As noted, where safety is concerned there is no substitute for credible public regulatorsd. It thus must become a strategic objective of this campaign to help build that credibility. And because the greatets consumer credibility within the industrial chain is carried by the branded sectors at the top, endorsements of the regulator's intergrity, competence and reliabilityshould come only from them. The effectiveness of such endorsements will be further enhanced to the extent that they are also seen to be coming from parties who are not dependent on the regulator's decision - i.e., who have the power of choice over the take-up of the product (assuming of course they do).

Regulatory endorsements from the bottom of the chain, on the other hand, are to be avoided because they contribute to the credibility-killing perception that those with the greates self-interest control the regulators.

g. What only the lower sectors in the chain can do - and now must urgently do - is educate the public on why these food crops are being modified in the first place. Indeed there is a great and bitter irony in the current situation in Europe : the products now causing the greatest furor were born from efforts to relieve environmental pressures brought on the farming sector by the very same militant organisations who today condemn them.

h. That adversaries have had considerable success in this bizarre form of infanticide is a largely a failure of public perceptions management in Europe at the bottom of the chain. In fact, recent reserach shows that Europeans are generally receptive when told that these new varieties can help reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. But most either simply have not understood that this is their primary technical and economic purpose at the level of the farm, or simply do not believe it when told (interpreting this message as nothing more than self-interested propaganda).

i. We therefore conclude that for this category of products (whihc includes virtually all those in the first wave of 90/220/EEC authorisations and is the real seat of the fire) it is both absolutely vital and perfectly achievable to position them in European public perceptions as environmentally superior to standard crop varieties and therefore desirable.

j. We are perfectly aware that adversaries have tried to discredit
this positioning. But we can see absolutely no down-side risk in
taking on the environmental lobby on this, its own turf. After all,
if these new varieties do not prove to have chemical displacing
benefits they will fail in the market anyway. So either they perform
as advertised and the environmental case becomes inconrtovertible, or
they don't perform, disappear from the market, and the case is

k. Assuming this positioning were achieved (and that perceptions of
risk are attenuated) it should then be perfectly possible for food
companies and retailers to embrace these environmentally-superior
ingredients - just as they do other inputs which respond to this
demonstrated consumer value. Indeed, rather than behaving as though
they have something to hide, why would they not actually want to tell
the consumer they are using them?

l. We would even go so far as to consider whether retailers and food companies should not announce immediately that this basic environmental criterion will (or has) largely dictated their policy toward the use of ingredients from this class (once certified safe by the competent authorities). Up-take by the branded sectors might then vcome to be seen for what it actually will be - an ethical response to a real environmental problem about which consumers genuinely care. At that point, use of htese ingredients would no longer threaten consumer confidence in thgeir brands, and the labelling issue would become entirely moot.

m. We note in passing recent evidence showing that Europeans are less responsive to the argument that these new agricultural technologies will help feed the underfed and the generations yet unborn in other parts of the world. In our developed societies characterised by excess and surfeit, this benefit is not valued as highly as the environmental benefit, and we would not make it a focus of the agri-food media campaign.

n. Beyond the modified commodity crops now scrutiny, there are of course other categories of genetically modified food products either already in European markets of headed for them. This will also need to be considered for treatm,ent in the media campaign. But each will need to be considered on its own merits, because their consumer benefits will vary, and the appeal of those benefits may well vary across Europe.

o. Finally, we also strongly recommend strategic campaign focus by the bottom of the chain on carefully selected economic/benefits stories specific to their sectors. These may well need to play more locally across Europe, becaue that is where the greatest interest will almost always lie. But they can be used to great effect to build pockets of strong support. (To cite one extreme analogy, consider the political support generated by the tabacco industry in the U.S. in certain southern states.)

Continued in Part 2

Back to Index