(or, how to miss the mark with a $50-million communications campaign)"
When biotech companies look into their futures they are creative, innovative, and visionary but when it comes to public relations and communications they are myopic, backward looking and uninspired. They fail to understand how and why their public relations strategies and tactics have been enormous failures and why public concern over biotechnology and genetically modified foods continues to deepen. Despite the lessons which should have been learned, the biotech industry is undertaking a $50-million public relations program using communications tools which have more historical than practical value in the information age.
As a result, a three- to five-year advertising and communications campaign which the biotech industry is launching in April 2000 "to promote genetically modified foods as safe and not harmful to the environment" (source: O'Dwyer's PR Daily, Mar. 27/00) will fail. The only winner will be BSMG Worldwide which has been awarded the $50-million project which will include advertising, an internet site, brochures, and toll-free phone line.
Let the information flow
To understand why this $50-million campaign will be ineffective itıs necessary to understand how and why anti-biotech activist have been so successful. The massive demonstrations and the extensive media attention which anti-biotech activists brought to the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle illustrate the power and resourcefulness of the activists. The power of the activists is captured in the concepts of 'netwars' and 'netwarriors' which RAND, the U.S. military think tank, coined in the 1990s. These concepts are a product of the information age of which the internet is a vital part.
A Rand report notes:
Arming the troops with information
The volume of messages is important for two reasons. First, the shear number of messages reinforces the significance and magnitude of the cause in activistsı minds. Second, it ensures that activists working at the local, national and international levels have a constant source of new ammunition which they can use in their own anti-biotech battles.
It's also essential to appreciate the speed and international nature of list servers, such as the one mentioned here, and other forms of internet communications. For example, ePublic Relations is located in Guelph, Ontario, a small Canadian city. One of the daily newspapers which is distributed here is the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. Itıs common for an anti-biotech article to appear in the Record only to reappear on an anti-biotech list server within 24 hours and be available to activists in Great Britain, Japan, India, or Australia. This also means that a scientific paper which is released in Japan and has an anti-biotech perspective is available to activists in Guelph, Canada, within seconds.
Through this dense and rapid exchange of information, anti-biotech activists are able to keep their troops armed and ready to fight at all levels from a presentation to a municipal council to confronting international groups such as the World Trade Organization. Where and when these battles will take place and who will take part is often difficult if not impossible to predict. Yet, where ever they occur these confrontations will appear in the media and have an impact on public and political perceptions of biotechnology and genetically modified foods. This why the $50-million pro-genetically-modified-food campaign will fail.
Biotech industry needs netwarriors
A centralized command-and-control campaign, such as the one which the biotech industry is funding, is incapable of matching the information-rich and diffuse nature of anti-biotech netwarriors. Also, a centralized communications strategy lacks the widespread grassroots support and commitment which has made the anti-genetically-modified-food forces in Europe so effective. That grassroots involvement is now becoming part of the North American battlefield.
What should the biotech industry do to thwart the advances of its adversaries? The answer is astonishingly simple. The biotech industry should change its strategy. Instead of relying on a centralized, command-and-control approach with its hierarchical structure, the industry should learn from the successes of its enemies and become netwarriors.
As RAND says:
RAND also notes:
That's the bottom line for the biotech industry. It must innovate. It must look beyond advertising, brochures, an internet site, and a toll-free phone line. It must understand, appreciate and accept the concepts of netwars and netwarriors. It must become a netwarrior.
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 4/8/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook