Smooth Facade: Greenwash Guru
Burson Marsteller and the
Biotech Industry J
ust a week after the conclusion of the EU summit, Amsterdam hosted the first European Bioindustry Congress, EuropaBio '97 (June 25-27). On this occasion, EuropaBio, the main lobby organization for the European biotech industry, launched its latest weapon in the crusade for biotech in Europe: a report Benchmarking the Competitiveness of Biotechnology in Europe.1
emerged from its first reading in the European Parliament relatively unscathed. More recently, on September 10th, the Commission announced that it would draft measures which would obligate Austria, Italy and Luxembourg to repeal their national bans on the use and sale of genetically-modified maize.
But, however rosy the situation may seem for the European biotech industry,
But in the hour of need, a helping hand is always near, especially i f there is money to earn. Enter Burson Marsteller, the world's largest public relations (PR) firm specializing in 'perception management' (see box). Just a few days before the EuropaBio conference, a PR strategy proposal for EuropaBio by Burson Marsteller was leaked to Greenpeace.2 Here we outline
an unacceptable scheme aimed to soothe public fears and outrage over the new biotechnologies and to ensure general acceptance.
Their "specially commissioned" independent study was carried out by a team of researchers from Business Decisions Limited ("a consultancy specializin g i n competitiveness and regulatory reform issues") and biotechnology experts from the Science Policy Research Group of the University of Sussex.
Burson Marsteller advises industry to refrain from partaking in any public debate
and to leave it to "those charged with public trust — politicians and regulators —
According to Burson Marsteller, EuropaBio has "firmly established [itself] as the primary representative of European bioindustrial interests within the political and regulatory structures of Europe" and the organization has an "indispensable direct role in the policy-making process." However, "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
to assure the public that biotech
products are safe."
one more fundamental problem remains: what i f consumers won't accept biotech products due to feared health or environmental risks? As the first biotech products have reached farms and shop shelves, a storm of protest and concern has been raised amongst citizens both in the US and
The report analyses the different factors influencin g the competitiveness of the European biotech industry and provides four scenarios for the future development of biotechnology in Europe. The scenario which is most positive for the biotech sector (dubbed the 'fast development' scenario) assumes "consumer and manufacturer attitudes [towards biotechnology] improving quickly" and "a generally favourable regulatory environment for R&D and production". Under such circumstances, the researchers predict a six-fold increase in the use of biotechnology by the year 2005. That would be equivalent to a 20 per cent compound annual growth rate for the period 1995-2005.
In EuropaBioys newsletter everything is
under control. The word risk is nonexistent, and if there is a problem related
to biotechnology it is "the low level of public understanding of and trust in the
perceptions and opinions beyond the policy world is now essential."3
The leaked paper recommends four basic strategies:4
"stay off the killing fields", "create positive perceptions", "fight fire with fire" and "create service-based media relations".
safety of the new products".
The ball is already rolling pretty much in the direction EuropaBio wishes. Relations with both the Commission and the European Parliament are pretty good, and in July last year, the Commission's proposal for a directive on biotechnology patents
(even more) in the EU. This resistance poses a life-threatening risk to the biotech industry, which needs to sell these products in order to earn back the huge investments made to develop or obtain the used technologies.
In an explanatory paragraph, Burson Marsteller explains that "public issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe." Moreover, "all the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these questions."
The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 3, May/June 1998