Tag Archives: GMO

Moving the black hat: A lesson from the GMO debate.

White hats and black hats. In its simplest form that is the way the reputation game is played. I attributed this in Now Is Too Late to the move of Walter Cronkite style journalism into prime-time television with the launch of “60 Minutes.” Having to compete with drama on TV, they adopted the simplest and most satisfying form of drama: melodrama. And the melodrama is characterized by overly simplified portrayals of white hats (good guys) and black hats (bad guys) fighting over the maiden in distress (any form of public good).

In crisis communication and reputation management, you normally have the black hat on. Someone is accusing you of something. The accusers, as portrayed in media reports, almost universally where the white hat with little attention paid to their motives, interests, or even credibility of their accusations. Why? Because it fits the formula. Nuance doesn’t play well in melodrama or “investigative reports.”

But a major strategic question in these issues is when and how do you get the black hat off you? One response is to do your best to change hats. Knowing that the media will only play this white hat black hat game, unless the hat colors switch, you are going to be stuck.

Being very involved in food related issues, this is a particularly challenging question. I’ve watched the GMO debate with great interest (and frankly, great frustration as long time readers here know). The very voices who rail at the ignorance of climate change deniers for their stubborn resistance to scientific consensus, completely change position when it comes to GMO. The scientific consensus is very clear: GMOs are safe, in fact, likely help make food safer. But, despite the incredible amount of scientific study, the anti-GMO activists cling to their attacks. Even Michael Pollan, the respected food writer, says in effect, well, I’m not really saying that GMOs are bad, but they should be labeled. As I argued before, that for 57% of the population would be putting a poison label on these foods. Do Michael and company really think putting the skull and crossbones symbol on food that is known to be completely safe is in the public interest?

While it seems that the pendulum is swinging and that in general the public is coming to understand that the activists are out to lunch on this, those defending continue to be on the defensive. They continue to wear the black hat, which may only be turning slightly gray. The only way to really move the dial on this issue is to switch hats.

And that is what William Saletan has done in this very important article in Slate. In this meticulously researched article, he demonstrates the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the anti-GMO activists. As the subhead states: GMO food is safe. The rhetoric is dangerous.

As always, these debates involve the public good. If you are going to put a black hat on someone, you have to demonstrate that what they are doing is harmful to innocent people or the environment. Clearly the activists have been harmful as he makes very clear.

Moving the hats isn’t an easy thing, particularly when the accusers have had the benefit of media presenting the story in their typical melodrama fashion for so long. And personally it can be dangerous. The “true believers” in the anti-GMO camp will likely turn on Slate and Saletan with a vengeance. Until many other voices like Saletan’s join in the discussion, calling out the Chipotles and Whole Foods of the world for their participation in something they see as harmful, there will be continuing confusion about who are the good guys and who the bad guys here.

It is interesting to see how the major media are dealing with the shift. Case in point: New York Times published a guest editorial from Mark Lynas in April. Lynas is the well-known British anti-GMO activist turned GMO promoter. But we do not see a NYT article or other mainstream outlets doing the melodrama treatment on Greenpeace or the other activist groups. When we do, we will know that the melodrama game has turned against those anti-science true believers.




Chobani, Whole Foods and GMO–stopping the bullying

Chobani, a very popular maker of the wildly popular Greek yogurt, is facing the hijacking of their Facebook page by the anti-GMO crowd.

As frequent readers here know, I think the GMO-haters are out to a non-GMO lunch.  If there was one shred of scientific evidence behind their scare tactics, it would be one of the biggest news stories of the decade. And despite trying exceptionally hard to find evidence of risk, the scientific consensus is firm–there is no proof of risk or harm. You may recall this convinced one of the leading anti-GMO campaigners to come clean and admit he was wrong.

But lack of evidence is not stopping the nutcases from attacking anyone and everyone who they think can be bullied. Chobani works hard to cultivate an image of healthy food–all natural and all that. But, the anti-GMO crowd doesn’t like the fact that the cows that produce the milk that produce the yogurt eat grain that is grown with seed that has been developed to enable farmers to be more productive and use less chemicals. These (gasp) “Round-Up Ready” seeds come from (double-triple gasp) Monsanto, perhaps the most hated company on earth. The problem that Chobani and many many others in the food business face is how are they going to compete and meet the demand for their products by relying on milk from non-GMO fed cows when that milk is far far more expensive and in very short supply?

There are two issues that really trouble me. One, how does a company like Chobani fight against the kind of irrational but extremely passionate attacks of an ill-informed but noisy crowd? And second, how do others who are connected to the brand in some way avoid being tainted with the attacks–knowing full well that the fury of the bullies can turn on them in an instant?

Whole Foods dropped Chobani in December, 2013. They said it was because of the GMO issue. The Washington Post and New York Times both made clear that if that was the case, Whole Foods is being very hypocritical. They attributed it to other reasons–making more room for more niche, higher margin brands.

This decision did two things that have hurt Chobani and the rest of us: it helped bring Chobani’s GMO issue more to public attention and it further encouraged the bullies.

That’s the real problem I have here. I see voters in Jackson County, Oregon just voted to not allow GMO crops to be grown in their county. The GMO nuts are putting their labeling initiative on the ballot again in California. They continue to gain ground in their campaign of lies and misinformation precisely because otherwise good people are afraid of being bullied by them. Who wants to be sucked into such a controversy even when you know the fears are unwarranted? Who needs that kind of problem? So, just avoid them by staying clear. And the bullies win. Every time they win, they help convince those uncertain about the dangers that there must be something to it.

WholeFoods not carrying Chobani because of GMO? Well, that certainly means that Chobani and GMO must be dangerous. Thanks a lot Whole Foods–you just gave some major points to the bullies.

Remember the MSG allergy scare–the Chinese food syndrome? Completely bogus, based on a paper published in a prestigious scientific journal. Many people “suffered” by being deprived of “umami” one of the tastiest substances on earth. But that is nothing compared to the vaccination scare. People are not deprived of something tasty, children are suffering from increased levels of diseases and deaths are caused by a completely bogus “scientific” study. In 1998 a guy by the name of Andrew Wakefield issued a study showing dangers of vaccines. The media, of course, loves this sort of thing because scaring the be-jesus out of people through a new source of fear is a great way to get readers or viewers. And this was helped tremendously when a seriously overblown celebrity jumped into the fray and helped raise attention.

People get hurt by this nonsense and the bullying tactics of the true believers. That’s why it is essential that we base our political and personal decisions on the best available science, particularly scientific consensus. And that we resist caving in to the bullies. Will people get hurt by the bullies attacking Chobani? Yes, the people who would otherwise eat a good and healthy food. But more importantly, if the bullies win in the anti-GMO craze, the impact on food prices will be considerable. Now we are talking about significant numbers of people at the very lowest poverty levels starving. Yes, it does matter. The bullies have to be stopped.




What if you are like Monsanto, and in a battle you can’t win?

There are some battles that you just know can’t be won. Monsanto is in one of them–the GMO name-calling battle. I’ve had a few client situations where the reputation situation is so ugly, that any conventional strategy is quite hopeless. In one, a few years ago, I said you need a game changer. You need a way to push a restart button and clear the past away. They did and the change was remarkable.

But what about Monsanto. Things are so bad for them, that even the PR newsletters commenting on them can’t spell their name right. I live in Washington State and the GMO labeling issue is on the ballot. As NPR pointed out, it is certain to pass. Food in Washington State no doubt will soon need to be identified as GMO or non-GMO.

What is so fascinating about this issue is that anyone who has seriously looked at the fundamental concern, which is consumer health and safety, has to conclude that there is zero scientific evidence for any concern. Zero. None. All the more remarkable given how hard are working to find the slightest amount. Even famed food authority Michael Pollan, in an NPR interview, stated that the scientific evidence does not suggest any danger. But, he also pointed out that this debate is really not about safety. He says it is about transparency.

I am all for transparency. I stated in a Capital Press interview that in this era any ag producer or food processor needs to look at how what they are doing will be viewed by the public and consumers if it is made clear. If it can’t be defended, they had better change it, because whatever is untenable to the public will come out. I believe in transparency.

But this is not really about transparency. Because slapping words or in this case three letters on something that has become so distorted and misunderstood in meaning is doing no public service. Why not just put “radioactive” on it, and the nuclear symbol? The anti-GMO forces, with the too ready compliance of the headline-hungry media, have so tainted those three letters that putting GMO label on food is to call it poison.

It’s not about transparency because as Pollan pointed out, and was confirmed to me by those who oppose GMOs, the science doesn’t matter, transparency doesn’t really matter. This is about big companies, powerful corporate interests, and most specifically about Monsanto. This corporate giant is wrongly seen as having a monopoly on GMOs and ruthless in their protection of intellectual property (see Food Inc.). That’s why the anti-GMO forces can’t win this battle. It’s not really about GMO, food, safety, or transparency. It is about the animosity that so many–particularly the younger set–feels toward corporate agriculture and food production. The GMO battle is a litmus test for whether or not you support the local movement, reduction in chemicals in foods, the small guy vs the huge guy.

Monsanto can’t win it. The pro-GMO folks can’t win it because they are fighting the wrong battle. They can’t seem to try to bring some scientific sense to this discussion without being accused of cozying up to corporate greed. That’s the nature of this battle.

To me, this is an archetype of the kind of “state of fear” situation that destroys, rather than helps. The vaccination scare is another example. I have little doubt that many young lives have been hurt by the irresponsible activism of some and the inherent danger in our media system when chasing ad dollars is more important than providing the truth.

How will we be hurt when we lose the GMO battle? In Washington, how can we not see an increase in food costs and a reduction in food choices? Who wants to prepare labels for one state? Who wants to manage distribution with this kind of ad hoc labeling requirement. Pure nonsense–and for what reason? Science? No. Fear mongering by those who profit from creating irrational fears. Much worse, is the danger that public fears about GMOs will limit our ability in the future to produce the many times greater food output needed to meet demand by 2050. In that case, people will starve and food costs will become a much higher portion of living costs, with the poor being hurt the most.

Monsanto, and the rest of you in this business. Your lack of transparency, of lack of attention to the rising concern about this, your lack of public education around this important issue is where the blame really lies. It’s too late for you to try to address this. But others who are concerned about our food supply–and about how nonsense like this can take such a firm hold–they must step up now.


The furor over Genetically Modified Corn reveals the activism-media link

My friend and colleague Irv Lipp alerted me to this issue of GM (Genetically Modified) maize (corn) in Europe. Here are the basic facts as I can distill them:

1. A French anti-GMO activist, Seralini, who so happens to have an anti-GMO book coming out this week, announced to the media that he was going to release the results of a scientific study that showed definitively that modified corn and herbicides made rats sicker than rats that ate regular corn.

2. He gave the study to major media outlets in France with the provision that they could not consult other experts before release.

3. The news headlines, as NPR reports, showed up stating: BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors”

4. The story has been widely published.

5. Anti-GMO activists around the world have jumped on the study to push bans on GMO food with apparently some success in France and Russia.

But, as Mr. Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. The “scientific study” is proving to be anything but scientific. I’m not qualified to go into details about why it is being roundly rejected by groups such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but it seems quite obvious that Mr. Seralini and group have cynically manipulated the media into promoting his anti-GMO agenda.

Now, of course, groups that are promoting such foods are on their back feet desperately trying to counter the information (or false information) being so widely distributed.

The real story here is media manipulation. The eagerness of the media to publish a story that certainly will generate a great deal of public interest on a controversial topic plays into the hands of unscrupulous activists. The clever device of getting major media to agree to not investigate the story while it was embargoed should have led them to smell a rat. I suspect many did, but the headline was too juicy to pass up and the do not see their job as in a story like this as validating the claims, only publishing the claims.  The blog “food and drink europe” did an excellent job of analyzing the media manipulation behind this story.

Once again I have to hand it to NPR for an excellent treatment of the story. Their take on it seems to me fair, balanced and accurate. They identify the agenda of the study’s author (at least part of it since they didn’t mention his book coming out), but also point make clear the criticism. They even report that the study may show an opposite effect claimed by Mr. Seralini:

Also, if this experiment truly showed a link between genetically engineered food and tumors, one might expect the rats that ate more of the GM corn to develop more tumors. In fact, the opposite happened. The rats eating a diet of 33 percent GMO corn stayed healthier than animals eating food with a GMO concentration of just 11 percent.

And, particularly unusual for a story of this nature, NPR gives some relevant related information:

“…there’s a deeper reason why scientists like Kuiper give little credence to Seralini’s studies. There’s a saying in science: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For most of the scientists who have been studying the safety of GMOs, it’s an extraordinary claim, at this point, to assert that the current generation of genetically modified crops are harmful to human health.

There’s no apparent reason why that should be true; No one has found new toxic substances in these crops. And the giant feeding experiment that’s been going on for the past fifteen years — hundreds of millions of Americans consuming GMO ingredients — hasn’t produced evidence of harm, either.

It would take a lot more evidence that the results of this study to change their minds.”

The sad facts of this story are:

1) The predisposition of the reader will determine their acceptance of the “science.” Mine predisposition is likely obvious to you.

2) Media scare stories like this have two sad effects: they further destroy trust in the media as a conveyor of truth, and they cause irrational fear that drives irrational public policy.

For crisis communication professionals, particularly those engaged in controversial operations such as making food, the lessons should be clear. This is what the media does, this is how it operates, this is what you have to deal with. Don’t be fooled. However, when NPR calls to do an interview, take the call.