The Public relations practitioners always used to tell me: “There is no such thing as bad PR”. And I agreed, as I always believed that being noticed or recognized is good enough PR. But I am thinking about changing my approach after going through the Monsanto Public Relations.
Monsanto is probably world’s most controversial company. Founded in 1901 in St. Louis Missouri, the pharmaceutical, chemical and bio-engineering giant employs more than 25000 employees and reported an annual revenue of 15 billion dollars last year. It manufactures a multitude of products that we consume on daily basis.
In addition to making the infamous Agent Orange used in Vietnam, the company has been making some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals. These include world’s most sold pesticide 2-4-D; most sold herbicide Roundup; one of the world’s deadliest toxins PCB (sold as Arocolor, production terminated in 1977); and Bovine somatotropin (the rBST and rBGH hormone injections given to cows to artificially induce extra milk production) which is illegal in Canada but used widely. The company also makes one of the most controversial chemical used by almost all of us: Aspartame (sold under commercial names Equal ®, NaturaSweet ® and Canderel ®. Yes, this is the artificial sweetener used in most of our Diet foods. Although assumed a better alternative of sugar (which itself is quite controversial) Aspartame has linked to various health concerns and carcinogenic effects.
Monsanto also has virtual domination of the GMO foods and GMO seeds market. This has led it to be involved in many controversies and litigation in USA, Vietnam, India, Brazil, Europe and many other countries. Most of these controversies are about patenting indigenous plants as Intellectual Property, owning the seeds, non-use of Monsanto seeds, falling crop yields and litigation by Monsanto against small farmers. But that’s a different story which can be read in detail in Marie-Monique Robin’s award winning chilling book “The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply” and the documentary of the same name.
Leaving other scary details aside, let us see what’s stopping the company from using Public Relations and advertising to become more popular. The company pledges to “operate under a genuine value system—our pledge—that demonstrates integrity, respect, ethical behavior, perspective and honesty as a foundation for everything we do”. In fact, the Monsanto pledge available on their website talks about integrity, dialogue, transparency, sharing, benefits, respect and other very positive characteristics as its core values. The website itself is beautifully designed and provides lots of answers and information.
Monsanto has always been investing heavily in Public Relations. A very smart move is to try to get people from government, especially the FDA, on their board as well as to move their public relations people to major government agencies and departments that might affect Monsanto’s future. There are many examples including but not limited to
- Former Assistant administrator EPA Linda Fisher joined Monsanto as VP Government Affairs.
- Head of EPA from 1983 to 1985 William Ruckelshaus joined Monsanto’s board of directors.
- Former deputy director FDA Michael Friedman joined by Monsanto’s pharmaceutical subsidiary Searle.
- Margaret Miller, a researcher who worked on Monsanto’s report of the Bovine Growth Hormone moved joined FDA in 1989 where her first job was to review the same report.
- Virginia Meldon, former Monsanto PR director, was hired by the Clinton administration.
- Rufus Yerxa, former chief counsel for Monsanto, was made U.S. representative to the WTO.
- Martha Scott Poindexter (former director governmental affairs) was hired by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
- Robert Fraley, former VP Monsanto and a major “discoverer” of Roundup Ready soybeans, was named a technical adviser to USDA.
And there are more.
So, if the company has connections with the government and industry; has monopoly on various segments of the market; has a strong PR department; and has lots of funds to spare on PR, why is it controversial and why is everyone against it?
The answer to this is question in the PR learning point of the story.
PR should always be supported by good performance. PR alone cannot save a company or organization or individual. It has to be supported by good, honest work.
PR should always be a strategy to achieve the objective of good reputation to help with the business objective. It cannot be a strategy to cover up your failures and poor performance or to shift blame.