Quantcast

Bayer Investigates Its Shady PR Firm After 'Monsanto File' Scandal in France

Insights + Opinion
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

By Stacy Malkan

In the latest PR scandal to engulf Bayer, journalists at Le Monde reported May 9 that they obtained a "Monsanto File" created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a "multitude of information" about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France.


Le Monde filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor's office alleging that the document involved illegal collection and processing of personal data, spurring the prosecutor's office to open a criminal probe. "This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices. I can see they were trying to isolate me," France's former Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who is on the list, told France 24 TV. Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist named on the list, told France 24 the list included personal details such as addresses, opinions and level of engagement in relation to Monsanto. "This is a major shock in France," he said. "We don't think this is normal."

Bayer apologized and said it suspended its relationship with the firms involved, including FleishmanHillard and Publicis Consultants, pending an investigation. "Our highest priority is to create transparency," Bayer said in response to the "Monsanto File" scandal. "We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company." However the PR companies Bayer relies upon, including FleishmanHillard and PR firms under the same corporate ownership, have histories of using underhanded tactics to promote and defend their clients — and they have done the same for Bayer.

Stealth Tactics of Bayer’s PR Firms

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of GMOs and pesticides. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to "reshape" its reputation "amid fierce opposition to the seed giant's genetically modified products," according to the Holmes Report. FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer. The Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group now funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF, hired Ketchum to launch a marketing campaign called GMO Answers.

Spin tactics employed by these firms included "wooing mommy bloggers" and using the voices of supposedly "independent" experts to "clear up confusion and mistrust" about GMOs. However, evidence surfaced that the PR firms edited and scripted some of the "independent" experts. For example, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Ketchum scripted posts for GMO Answers that were signed by a University of Florida professor who claimed to be independent but worked closely with Monsanto. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her on how to "win over people in the room" at an Intelligence Squared debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also coached the professor and gave her talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics play a key role in agrichemical industry lobbying and PR campaigns, as the New York Times reported in 2015. "Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers," Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, wrote to the University of Florida professor. "Keep it up!" The industry trade group CBI has spent over $11 million on Ketchum's GMO Answers since 2013, according to tax records.The spin has influenced journalists, according to the PR industry. In 2014, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award for "Crisis Management & Issue Management." In this video, Ketchum bragged about how it nearly doubled positive media attention of GMOs and "balanced 80% of interactions" on Twitter. Although the Ketchum video claimed GMO Answers would "redefine transparency" with information from experts with "nothing filtered or censored, and no voices silenced," a Monsanto PR plan suggests the company counted on GMO Answers to help spin its products in a positive light. The document from 2015 listed GMO Answers among the "industry partners" that could help protect Roundup from cancer concerns; in a "resources" section on page 4, the plan listed links to GMO Answers alongside Monsanto documents that could communicate the company message that "Glyphosate is not carcinogenic."

The Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it (but we saved it here).

Omnicom’s FleishmanHillard and Ketchum: Histories of Deception

Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand, given their histories of documented deceptions. For example:

Until 2016, Ketchum was the PR firm for Russia and Vladimir Putin. According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Ketchum was caught placing pro-Putin op-eds under the names of "seemingly independent professionals" in various news outlets. In 2015, the embattled Honduran government hired Ketchum to try to rehabilitate its reputation after a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Documents leaked to Mother Jones indicate that Ketchum worked with a private security firm that "spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings." FleishmanHillard was also caught using unethical espionage tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, according to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health. The PR firm even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences.

FleishmanHillard was the public relations firm for The Tobacco Institute, the cigarette industry's main lobbying organization, for seven years. In a 1996 Washington Post article, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how FleishmanHillard and the Tobacco Institute converted the Healthy Buildings Institute into a front group for the tobacco industry in its effort to spin away public concern about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Ketchum also did work for the tobacco industry.

Both firms have at times worked on both sides of an issue. FleishmanHillard has been hired for anti-smoking campaigns. In 2017, Ketchum launched a spin-off firm called Cultivate to cash in on the growing organic food market, even though Ketchum's GMO Answers has disparaged organic food, claiming that consumers pay a "hefty premium" for food that is no better than conventionally-grown food.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaks during the North American Building Trades Unions Conference at the Washington Hilton April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zach Gibson / Getty Images

Colorado senator and 2020 hopeful Michael Bennet introduced his plan to combat climate change Monday, in the first major policy rollout of his campaign. Bennet's plan calls for the establishment of a "Climate Bank," using $1 trillion in federal spending to "catalyze" $10 trillion in private spending for the U.S. to transition entirely to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read More Show Less
Foto-Rabe / Pixabay

When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.

Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A crate carrying one of the 33 lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Columbia is lifted onto the back of a lorry before being transported to a private reserve on April 30, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

By Andrea Germanos

Animal welfare advocates are praising soon-to-be introduced legislation in the U.S. that would ban the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.

Read More Show Less
A tornado Monday in Union City, Oklahoma. TicToc by Bloomberg / YouTube screenshot

Extreme weather spawned 18 tornadoes across five states Monday, USA Today reported. Tornadoes were reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arizona, but were not as dangerous as forecasters had initially feared, the Associated Press reported.

Read More Show Less
A woman walks in front of her water-logged home in Sriwulan village, Sayung sub-district of Demak regency, Central Java, Indonesia on Feb. 2, 2018. Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency /Getty Images

A new study has more than doubled the worst-case-scenario projection for sea level rise by the end of the century, BBC News reported Monday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Matt Cardy / Stringer / Getty Images

The Guardian is changing the way it writes about environmental issues.

Read More Show Less
Blueberry yogurt bark. SEE D JAN / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Having nutritious snacks to eat during the workday can help you stay energized and productive.

Read More Show Less
A 2017 flood in Elk Grove, California. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

By Tara Lohan

It's been the wettest 12 months on record in the continental United States. Parts of the High Plains and Midwest are still reeling from deadly, destructive and expensive spring floods — some of which have lasted for three months.

Mounting bills from natural disasters like these have prompted renewed calls to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which is managed by Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now $20 billion in debt.

Read More Show Less