Betsie Estes is a mother of two young kids who lives in suburban Chicago.
She’s also public relations gold.
Last week, Estes was in the audience at an annual biotechnology industry conference in Chicago, attended by the industry’s power players, Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co., and its competitors, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, among them.
After the gathering, Estes jotted a few thoughts on her blog.
“There’s a pervasive thought that the people who are anti-GMO are operating from a purely altruistic place,” she wrote. “But make no mistake, just as there is big money in biotech, there is big money in opposing the technology. Entire brands, both corporate and personal, have been developed around the concept that GM foods are bad.”
That’s the kind of message the industry wants to hear — that they’re not the bad guys — and it’s the Betsie Esteses of the “momosphere” who are, increasingly, being invited to convey it.
“Moms are really important because they’re the most influential consumers in the country,” said David Wescott, director of digital strategy with the public relations firm, APCO Worldwide. “They’re increasingly finding their own peers to be the most credible sources of information.”
So, what does an industry do when it wants to nudge public opinion in its favor? Find moms — preferably with blogs.
In the past several years, as American agriculture has come under greater scrutiny for everything from biotechnology to antibiotics use, farmers and farm industry groups have banded together to push back against the growing criticism, which has, they fear, grown closer to the mainstream.
“Production agriculture has really taken it on the chin for the past couple years,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, the biotechnology industry’s main trade group, which organized the Chicago conference. “We need to do a better job of providing information.”
In 2011 the leaders of 12 commodity groups met in St. Louis at the invitation of Rick Tolman, head of the National Corn Growers Association, resolving to do something to better connect with consumers. They formed the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which in turn launched the “Food Dialogues,” a series of panel discussions and other programs intended to reach shoppers with a more ag-friendly message. The group members pooled their resources and hired New York PR firm, Ketchum, to help guide strategy.
“Our thought is that the more we can get a dialogue going, the better we’ll be,” Tolman said. “Farmers and ranchers have good reasons for the things they do. They need to be able to explain those better.”
Around the same time, other commodity-oriented groups, including Illinois Farm Families and Missouri Farm Families, launched with the same goal. Also in the mix, was a group called the Center for Food Integrity, formed by Kansas City-based public relations guru, Charlie Arnot, and backed by the food and farming industries.
“There’s a level of skepticism of what food is today,” said Arnot, who was one of the presenters at the BIO conference. “We know that the vast majority of consumers are relatively unaware and unconcerned, but there’s a growing segment that has a higher level of concern, and that’s why we’re seeing this new level of engagement from agriculture.”
MONSANTO AS TARGET
To a large degree, agriculture today means biotechnology, and biotechnology means Monsanto, whose genetically engineered traits are grown on the vast majority of American crop acres. Though the company is not new to controversy, recently things have gotten a little more riled.
Last month, lawmakers passed a six-month spending bill that included a provision dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act,” giving the secretary of agriculture the authority to override a court decision halting the planting of genetically modified crops. The provision provoked an outcry from critics who said the measure, which was slipped into the bill without notice by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., underscored the too-powerful influence of corporations on the legislative process.
Then, last week, lawmakers introduced federal legislation that would require labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Some 25 states, including Missouri and Illinois, are considering similar measures. The biotechnology industry has fought against labeling efforts, saying labels will confuse consumers. Monsanto spent $8 million fighting a labeling initiative in California, sparking even more ire from consumers who say they have a right to know if their food is genetically engineered.
The labeling issue is at the heart of a global protest against Monsanto, being organized to take place on May 25 in more than 100 cities around the world.
“The technology represents further industrialization in food and agriculture — and that’s the objection,” Arnot said. “This is about how you effectively communicate the fact that people using these technologies care deeply about what they produce. It’s about authentically communicating your values, being transparent, inviting skepticism.”
When Illinois Farm Families decided to try that kind of communication, they did a little research and found, through focus groups, that people still trust farmers.
“They like farmers as people. They think of them being honest and hardworking,” said Lori Laughlin, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, which is a member of the group. “But they’re not really sure about what happens on today’s farms.”
So Illinois Farm Families invited them to see.
A couple years ago, the organization launched a “Field Mom” program, targeting suburban Chicago moms with kids under 13 — the demographic most concerned about food safety. They promised the moms tours of farms and industry sites, inviting them to ask questions of farmers and producers. In exchange, the moms blog their observations — good or bad. (They are reimbursed for travel expenses and child care, but not paid, Laughlin said.)
“It’s an opportunity to meet the people who grow and raise their food. … Then, after the fact, the moms blog about it,” Laughlin said. “The idea is to multiply that out to others who fit that demographic. We want to reach as many moms as we can. The message means so much more coming from a mom.”
Estes is now one of them.
Her posts on supersuburbs.com include photos from family trips, giveaways from Disney and Clorox — and thoughts on biotechnology.
Those thoughts, apparently, have made her something of a hot property.
After a recent Field Mom tour of a Monsanto research facility, she was asked by the Center for Food Integrity to be part of a video series for their “Best Food Facts” site. Then she was asked by Arnot to participate in a talk at last week’s Chicago conference. Her post was then picked up by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
At the BIO conference, according to Batra, there was a renewed acknowledgment that the industry’s messaging strategy has to take a new approach.
“There’s been an attitude shift,” she said. “We see that these fights are not going to go away, so we need to do a better job explaining our position.”
When asked if the apparent growing consumer mistrust has had any measurable financial impact on farming or biotechnology, many of these newly formed image-buffing groups said they weren’t aware of any.
They said the efforts are more about regaining public trust.
“I don’t know that it’s about finances for farmers,” Laughlin said. “But it doesn’t make sense when it’s our livelihood not to be a part of the conversation.”