EuropaBio: manipulating consent
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: the report Benchmarking the Competitiveness of Biotechnology in Europe.
This "specially commissioned independent study" (independent from whom, one could ask) was commissioned by EuropaBio and carried out by a team of researchers from Business Decisions Limited ("a consultancy specialising in competitiveness and regulatory reform issues") and biotechnology experts from the Science Policy Research Group of the University of Sussex.
The report analyses the different factors influencing 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% compound annual growth rate for the period 1995-2005.
The report also gives an estimate of the number of jobs associated with the use of biotechnology under the fast growth scenario by the year 2005, and comes up with the impressive figure of between 3.1 and 3.3 million positions.
But apart from any methodological questions one might have, the report provides absolutely no evidence that these massive figures include any net job creation. For example, the possible loss of existing jobs due to productivity increases caused by the introduction of biotechnology is not evaluated.
Whereas the researchers formulate their conclusions on employment very carefully, EuropaBio simply claims that 3 million jobs will be created or preserved by biotechnology by the year 2005. Following from that, it argues that when the conditions are right, the biotech industry can make a "significant contribution to the job creation objectives" endorsed by the European heads of state and government during the Amsterdam Summit.
With employment high on the EU agenda, EuropaBio evidently smells a chance to use this biotech job creation myth to divert more EU funds into biotech R&D and to force a breakthrough on a number of still open regulatory issues like the Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions, which just had its first reading in the European Parliament, and the upcoming Commission proposal for a revision of the Directive on the Deliberate Release into the Environment of Genetically Modified Organisms (90/220/EEC).
All this makes it easy to predict that the mythical figure of more than 3 million biotech jobs will pop up quite often -- and also in official EU documents -- over the next few months and during the Jobs Summit which will take place in Luxembourg in November.
"To get the ball rolling," EuropaBio pays special attention to the EU's prime mover in these fields: the Commission. EuropaBio has already presented its benchmarking report to the Commission, accompanied with a call to action. It announces that it will undertake "a series of meetings with key Commissioners and others to emphasize the importance of the challenges ahead and the need for collaborative efforts."
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, the Commission's proposal for a directive on biotechnology patents emerged from its first reading in the European Parliament relatively unscathed. More recently, on September 10th, the Commission announced that it will draft measures which will obligate Austria, Italy and Luxembourg to repeal their national bans on the use and sale of genetically modified maize.
Perceptions are real ... they can be managed
However rosy the situation may seem for the European biotech industry, one more fundamental problem remains: what if 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 (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.
But in the hour of need, a helping hand is always near, especially if 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. This paper outlines a scheme aimed to soothe public fears and outrage over the new biotechnologies and to ensure general acceptance.
Burson Marsteller (B-M) is the world's largest PR firm, with over sixty offices in more than 30 countries and US$233 income in 1996. Although its name is unknown to most people, B-M is fast becoming an increasingly important cog in the propaganda machine of the new world order.
B-M boasts its expertise at "neutralizing a threat or gaining the support of key constituencies" for a client. Past successes include "a grass roots campaign [...] orchestrated on behalf of several companies against an American energy tax"; and a "communications campaign [that] changed the 'fur coat issue'[...] from being one of 'animal cruelty' to one of 'the right to choose'."
In the past, B-M performed 'crisis management' for Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster and for Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and has advised oppressive regimes in Indonesia, Argentina and South Korea.
Sources: "Burson Marsteller: PR for the New World Order", Carmelo Ruiz, 1995; "Stay quiet on risks of gene-altered food, industry told", Danny Penman, The Guardian, 6 August 1997; "The acceptable face of disaster", Andy Beckett, The Guardian, 13 August 1997
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 perceptions and opinions beyond the policy world is now essential."
The leaked paper recommends four basic strategies: "stay off the killing fields", "create positive perceptions", "fight fire with fire" and "create service-based media relations".
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". Therefore, Burson Marsteller advises industry to refrain from partaking in any public debate on these issues and leave it to "those charged with public trust in this area -- politicians and regulators to assure the public that biotech products are safe."
Under the heading "fight fire with fire", Burson Marsteller advises the biotech industry to concentrate on:
a) "stories -- not issues"
"good stories [...] go around the world in minutes. That's the way adversaries play. That's the way industry must play."
b) "products -- not technologies"
"Stories must focus largely on the products of the new technologies. [...] When SAGB8 published its communication on 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!"
c) "beneficiaries -- not benefits"
"People stories are always the most compelling (recall the presence in Brussels during the Parliamentary vote on biotech patents of the fellow who claims to have had his genes ripped off without his permission)."
d) "symbols -- not logic"
"Symbols are central to politics because they connect to emotions, not logic." Bioindustries should use "symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and self-esteem".
In addition to these general principles, Burson Marsteller outlines an agri-food campaign which should make the European public perceive the first wave of genetically modified food crops as "environmentally superior to standard crop varieties and therefore desirable". To reach this goal, industry should no longer oppose separation of genetically modified products, defer responsibility for safety issues to official regulators and concentrate on the environmental and economic benefits of biotechnology.
According to Burson Marsteller's analysis, the "public outrage and resentment over the introduction of genetically modified food" originates in "a sense of powerlessness in the face of what are perceived to be malevolent (and foreign) forces threatening facets of life held dear." Therefore the proposed PR campaign aims to create a general perception that food producing companies, retailers and consumers can all freely choose whether or not to use, sell or buy genetically modified products. The Burson Marsteller spin doctors claim that this will "largely defuse" the sense of powerlessness.
The leaked paper also contains a detailed PR plan for the EuropaBio conference in Amsterdam. Burson Marsteller's basic advice was to keep the media away from the event as they would create a serious risk: their presence would "automatically draw protesting environmental groups to the Amsterdam venue. [...] EuropaBio will have set the table and Greenpeace will have eaten the lunch."
Therefore, Burson Marsteller advised EuropaBio to keep journalists away from the conference, and to instead feed them with ready made, positive stories. Media interest should not be focused on the conference itself, but rather the conference should be a news hook for "the stories we really want running back home". Live (radio) interviews with conference attendees should ensure that "(1) the Congress is referred to in all of the stories that play (2) we control the choice of commentators discussing the local story and the relevance of the Congress to it (3) the Congress link emphasizes the European dimension of the local story and allows us to introduce the broader competitive issues in all of those interviews."
Unfortunately it is very difficult to assess the effectiveness of Burson Marsteller's activities for EuropaBio. We don't even know what the actual PR campaign consisted of, as the leaked document is a proposal dated January 1997. However, recent articles in the British Guardian and the Danish Berlingske Tidende confirm that Burson Marsteller subsidiary Peter Linton Associates is engaged in PR work for EuropaBio.
Yet however well-conceived, a multi-million pound PR campaign may be spoiled with relatively simple means. In Amsterdam, conference attendees arriving at the stylish former stock exchange building found themselves welcomed by a group of activists from the Dutch Coalition for a Different Europe loudly voicing their concerns over the risks of biotechnology. And Greenpeace dumped a truckload of soybeans in front of the conference entrance at RAI congress centre early the next morning.
As conference PR manager Peter Linton commented to the Danish Berlingske Tidende: "Greenpeace came early on purpose, before the conference had started and people from industry could argue against them. Now TV stations all over Europe show pictures of a load of beans outside the industry conference. We missed a chance there."
But on paper the PR strategy works. In EuropaBio's newsletter everything is under control. The word risk is non-existent, and if there is a problem related to biotechnology it is "the low level of public understanding of and trust in the safety of the new products". Biotechnology will help to increase food security worldwide and contribute to sustainable development. No strings attached. Biotechnology will lead us towards a bright future.
But there is the odd passage which makes you ask which perverse reality hides behind EuropaBio's smooth facade. Like the biotech-solution that the chairman of EuropaBio's Ethics Task Force, Dr. Erik Tambuyzer (also Vice President in Europe of Genzyme Corp.) proposes for mad cow disease: "to remove the BSE gene from cows, making it impossible for them to catch the mad cow disease."
From the second week of November 1997 onwards, you can find links to most of the sources for this article and related materials on the CEO website at:
Corporate Europe Observatory intends to continuously monitor how EuropaBio, with the help of Burson Marsteller and the likes, is trying to influence political actors and to bring about a manipulated consent on the use of biotechnology in Europe. Please forward all relevant information you have to Corporate Europe Observatory.