Communications Programmes For EUROPABIO
Prepared by Burson-Marsteller Government & Public Affairs
Contents of this proposal
1. Burson-Marsteller Government & Public Affairs Europe submit in response to a three-fold request from EuropaBio for:
1) A communication strategy and programme responding to the urgent circumstances now confronting agri-food bioindustries in Europe.
2) A communication programme for the first European Bioindustry Congress set for late June in Amsterdam.
3) A long-term communications strategy and programme.
2. Proposals are made of each of these specific requests (including very prelimenary 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 principles which we believe should apply to all three.
Burson-Marsteller and Bioindustry issues
3. The Burson-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 East 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 are 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 in Germany, France, Denmark, the UK 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 Practise, Burson-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 the 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 it's inception, a grouping which includes a number of EuropaBio members and which continues to devote part of it's 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 judgements 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-emphasise the vital role such research plays in conceiving and executing any effective public and communications effort. Flying without it is 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 it's products, so no serious politician today operates without on-going attitude 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).
II. COMMON PRINCIPLES
A different approach
9. EuropaBio's antecedent organisations (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 indispensable direct role in the policy-making process. But it has become self-evident thast 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 it's communication to the policy world. In our experience, the key to success will be the speed and degree 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 that four basic strategic disciplines must shape any EuropaBio communications initiative:
Stay off the killing fields
Create positive perceptions
Fight fire with fire
Create service-based media relations
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 voice cannot be expected to prevail in public opposition to adversarial voices on these issues. All the research evidence confirms that the perception of the profit motive fatally undermines industry's credibility on these question. (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 this 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 upon them may be.
14. This is by no means to say, however, that this ground can be left undefended. Deepseated perceptions of 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 dereived from perceived benefits. Nevertheless, all sucessful 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 individual or group, and then having the discipline, organisation and determination to really apply them - that is what makes a 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-orientated 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 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 Parlamentary voteon 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 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 no industry propaganda but practical, editor-pleasing, deadline-beating, connect to interesting stories and personalities - even adversarial - relevant to their readerships.
III. A EUROPABIO COMMUNICATIONS CAMPAIGN FOR THE AGRI-FOOD SECTOR
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 Europa Bio 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-GM 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 propose an intensive, front-loaded media 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 the longer- term communications programme.
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 month, all of which is intended to engender fear and distrust.
c. Food itself is a powerful vector of cultural -and even poltical- values, virtually everywhere in Europe. But these values differ from country to country. And in many parts of Europe there also exist a strong corresponding emotional attachement 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 time, 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 or 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 genetic modified soya and maize is shown by research to be rooted in the perception that dangerous, unnatural ingredients are being forced into traditional 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.
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 technology is seen to be risky (and beeing the first to embrace is ssen especially risky), while beeing seen to refuse it looks a tempting marketing strategy (clean vs. dirty).
29. Based upon this assessment of the perceptions and attitudes 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 made a choice.
b. Food companies must also be seen to ensure that this power to choose is passed onto the consumer. This means "transparency" - product information made available to the consumer in some form. (We note that Europa Bio's public statement following ratification by the European Parliament of the EU Novel Foods conciliation text 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 or independence vis =E0 vis the rest of the chain - including food manufacturers, and must likewise adopt policies of transparency enabling consumer choice (i.e. empowerment). (Nobody instinctive understands this better than retailers themselves, which explains their recent public positioning on these issues).
d. By the same token, the supply-side sectors further down the chain must not themselves be heard to speak on behalf of the food and retail sectors, nor behave in any way which is seen to deny those sectors either their own independance 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 challenge 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 adversary groups - indeed, it is the wedge with which adversaries are attempting 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 uptake 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 substitude for credible public regulators. It thus must become a strategic objective of this campaign to help build that credibility. And because the greatest consumer credibility within the industrial chain is carried by the branded sectors at the top, endorsements of the regulator's integrity, competence and reliability should come only from them. The effectiveness of such endorsements will be further enhanced to the extend 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 up-take 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 greatest 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 beeing 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 largeley a failure of public perceptions management in Europe at the bottom of the chain. In fact, recent research 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).