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.
For years the St. Louis-based company has ignored such critics. But now the biotech giant is attempting a public relations makeover.
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.
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 D.C.-area journals as part of what many in public relations would call a “charm offensive.”
Monsanto’s top scientist, a recent winner of the World Food Prize, remains hopeful, however.
“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. So I think there is an opportunity to reframe that conversation.”
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.
Monsanto was declared “the most evil corporation of the year” in early 2011 by NaturalNews.com. Earlier this year the company confronted 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 labeling 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 labeling 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 labeling regulations every step of the way.
Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association — one of the many groups that attacks Monsanto’s reputation on a regular basis — remains skeptical 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.
“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.”
Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles declined to expand on the company’s specific public relations efforts. 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.