Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

Russia’s PR firm runs the agrichemical industry’s big PR salvo on GMOs

[Excerpt from Seedy Business, chapter 5]

Editor’s note — In March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not renew Russia’s contract with the PR firm Ketchum.

The agrichemical industry faces major public relations challenges, so it needs superb PR assistance. Perhaps it is not surprising that they hired the public relations firm that represents Russia, Ketchum, to manufacture the spin they need to keep its lavish profits flowing from the sale of genetically engineered seeds and related pesticides.

We Americans have good reason to distrust the ways that Russia and its PR firm Ketchum spin Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. So why should we trust Ketchum and its major public relations initiative to sell the idea that genetically engineered foods are safe for humans and the environment?

Ketchum is one of the world’s largest public relations firms. It is owned by the giant advertising firm Omnicom.

Ketchum began working for Russia in 2006. According to ProPublica, Russia pays Ketchum generously: “From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant…”[1] According to the New York Times, Ketchum has ten employees working on the Russia account.[2]

Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia is well-known. For example, in a recent news report, Reuters identified Ketchum as “The U.S. company that handles public relations for Russia in the United States.”[3] Here’s how the Washington Post introduced its readers to Ketchum: “Meet Ketchum, a New York-based PR firm that looks out for Russia’s interests in the U.S.”[4] When Russian President Vladimir V. Putin wanted to place a magnificently deceptive op-ed[5] in the New York Times about Syria, it had Ketchum place it.[6]

What else does Ketchum do for Russia? According to the Washington Post, “Ketchum spends a lot of time sending out press releases, setting up meetings with visiting Russian officials, and talking with journalists about things like Russia’s G20 presidency and U.S.-Russia relations…”[7]

In recent months, Ketchum has tried to spin itself away from any ties to Russian foreign policy. It claimed that “We are not advising the Russian Federation on foreign policy, including the current situation in Ukraine.”[8]

Aside from its work for Russia, Ketchum has a history of unethical activities. For example Ketchum hired the notorious private investigative firm Beckett Brown International (BBI) to conduct a massive espionage effort against Greenpeace, including hiring police to gain access to Greenpeace’s trash, hiring a firm staffed by former National Security Agency (NSA) employees to conduct computer intrusion and electronic surveillance, and obtaining phone records of Greenpeace staff or contractors.[9]

Ketchum appears to have also targeted consumer, food safety and environmental groups with espionage over issues related to genetically engineered food. According to an email from BBI staffer Jay Bly to Tim Ward, a former Maryland State Trooper also working for BBI:

Received a call from Ketchum yesterday afternoon re three sites in DC. It seems Taco Bell turned out some product made from bioengineered corn. The chemicals used on the corn have not been approved for human consumption. Hence Taco Bell produced potential glow-in-the-dark tacos. Taco Bell is owned by Kraft. The Ketchum Office, New York, has the ball. They suspect the initiative is being generated from one of three places:

1.Center for Food Safety, 7th & Penn SE

2.Friends of the Earth, 1025 Vermont Ave (Between K & L Streets)

3.GE Food Alert, 1200 18th St NW (18th & M)

#1 is located on 3rd floor. Main entrance is key card. Alley is locked by iron gates. 7 dempsters [sic] in alley—take your pick.

#2 is in the same building as Chile Embassy. Armed guard in lobby & cameras everywhere. There is a dumpster in the alley behind the building. Don’t know if it is tied to bldg. or a neighborhood property. Cameras everywhere.

#3 is doable but behind locked iron gates at rear of bldg.[10]

Ketchum has been involved in other scandals, too. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized Ketchum in 2004 and 2005 for producing video news releases that violated federal prohibitions against “covert propaganda” because they failed to disclose that they were financed by the federal government.[11]

What Russia’s PR Firm Does To Spin GMOs

Public relations firms like Ketchum are notoriously secretive, so there is little public information available about what services they really provide to the agrichemical industry. Here’s what we know.

The Council for Biotechnology selected Ketchum to produce a major public relations initiative: the GMO Answers campaign and website,[12] to help promote the industry’s views on genetically engineered food. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Ketchum will oversee the site” which the agrichemical companies “hope will help clear up confusion — and dispel mistrust — about their products.”[13]

Ketchum’s spinning for the agrichemical industry has been so artful that it was shortlisted in 2014 for a CLIO Award in the category of “Public Relations: Crisis and Issue Management.”[14]

Ketchum claims its work on GMOs has had a major impact. According to a Ketchum video, “positive media coverage has doubled. On Twitter, where we closely monitor the conversation, we’ve successfully balanced 80% of interactions with detractors.”[15] Cathleen Enright, executive director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, has also confirmed the campaign’s influence to Reuters. It “has tracked media reports about GMOs since the campaign began and has seen ‘measurable change,’ Enright said. ‘We’ve seen the positive tone … increase. That tells us we are having an impact.’”[16]

The American Farm Bureau Federation also boasts of Ketchum’s social media work in support of GMOs and the agrichemical industry. According to Andrew Walmsley of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Ketchum “seeks out negative (biotech-related) tweets on Twitter. We started that earlier this year. They’ll monitor for negative tweets and then ask (the author) to check out GMOanswers. … Since we launched that there’s been about an 80 percent reduction in negative Twitter traffic as it relates to GMOs.”[17]

Not surprisingly, given the impact that Ketchum’s GMO Answers campaign has had, the Council for Biotechnology Information has “committed to spending millions more annually for several more years on this campaign,” according to Reuters, though it would not disclose exactly how much it has spent or will spend on it. Reuters reported that it is a “multimillion-dollar campaign.”[18]

The GMO Answers site purports to be a place where consumers can get “answers” from industry leaders and “independent experts” about genetically engineered food.

There is not enough space here to point out all of the deceptions in Ketchum’s GMO Answers website. But among the most notable deceptions — a classical public relations strategy – is to attribute comments to “independent experts” when they are not independent at all. For example, the site identifies Bruce M. Chassy as an “independent expert.”[19] He is nothing of the sort, and has a history of hiding his ties to the agrichemical and food industries.[20] Another supposedly “independent expert” is Hans Sauer, who is actually “Deputy General Counsel for Intellectual Property for the Biotechnology Industry Organization,” a major trade group for the biotechnology and agrichemical industries.[21] Another supposedly “independent expert” is Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis.[22] Two years ago, public health lawyer Michele Simon called out Bradford for parroting word-for-word the talking points of the agrichemical industry in an anti-GMO labeling op-ed that was published the Woodland Daily Democrat.[23]

Ketchum is also behind the agriculture industry front group U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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.[24]

For ample good reason, we Americans are disinclined to trust Ketchum when it speaks for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Russia’s lack of credibility is legendary. Why should we trust Ketchum when it speaks on GMOs any more than we trust it when it speaks for Russia?


[1] Justin Elliott, “From Russia With PR.” ProPublica, September 12, 2013.

[2] Ravi Somaiya, “P.R. Firm for Putin’s Russia Now Walking a Fine Line.” New York Times, August 31, 2014. See also Rosie Gray, “Putin Spokesman Suggests Kremlin Might End Ketchum Contract.” BuzzFeed, September 2, 2014.

[3] Andy Sullivan, “Russia’s U.S. PR Firm Distances Itself from Ukraine Dispute.” Reuters, March 6, 2014.

[4] Holly Yeager, “Who Would Work For Russia? These People.” Washington Post, March 7, 2014. David Teather, “PR Groups Cash in on Russian Conflict.” Guardian, August 23, 2009.

[5] Vladimir V. Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria.” New York Times, September 11, 2013.

[6] Rosie Gray, “Ketchum Placed Controversial Putin Op-Ed: The PR Firm’s Biggest Russia Coup Ever?BuzzFeed News, September 12, 2013. Justin Elliott, “From Russia With PR.” ProPublica, September 12, 2013.

[7] Holly Yeager, “Who Would Work For Russia? These People.” Washington Post, March 7, 2014. Ketchum’s recent work for Russia is cheerfully detailed in its filings required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. See, for example, Ketchum’s supplemental statement to the FARA registration unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, July 11, 2014. See also Eamon Javers, “Who’s on Putin’s American Payroll?” CNBC, March 5, 2014.

[8] Andy Sullivan, “Russia’s U.S. PR Firm Distances Itself from Ukraine Dispute.” Reuters, March 6, 2014.

[9] James Ridgeway, “Black Ops, Green Groups.” Mother Jones, April 11, 2008. Gary Ruskin, Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Non-Profit Organizations. November 20, 2013. Spencer S. Hsu, “Greenpeace Accuses Dow Chemical, Sasol and P.R. Allies of Corporate Spying.” Washington Post, November 29, 2010. Ralph Nader, “Corporations Spy on Nonprofits With Impunity.” Huffington Post, August 22, 2014. For details regarding Greenpeace’s lawsuit against Ketchum and others, see Greenpeace’s Spy Gate web page.

[10] James Ridgeway, “The Dirty History of Corporate Spying.” Guardian, February 15, 2011.

[11]Matter of: Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare &

Medicaid Services—Video News Releases.” U.S. General Accounting Office, May 19, 2004. GAO file # B-302710. Correspondence with U.S. Senators Frank R. Lautenberg and Edward M. Kennedy. “Subject: Department of Education—No Child Left Behind Act Video News Release and Media Analysis.” U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 30, 2005. GAO File #B-304228. Sebastian Jones and Michael Grabell, “PR Firm Behind Propaganda Videos Wins Stimulus Contract.” ProPublica, March 30, 2010. Robert Pear, “White House’s Medicare Videos Are Ruled Illegal.” New York Times, May 20, 2004.

[12] http://www.gmoanswers.com.

[13] Georgina Gustin, “Monsanto, Other Biotech Companies, Launch Website To Answer GMO-Related Questions.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 2013. Dan Flynn, “Plant Biotechnology Industry Rolls Out Site to Address Top Consumer Questions.” Food Safety News, March 20, 2014.

[14]Ketchum Continues Winning Tradition at CLIOs with Three Awards, One Shortlist Mention.” Ketchum news release, October 2, 2014.

Ketchum helps the agrichemical industry respond to negative comments on social media. An article in the Delta Farm Press quotes Andrew Walmsley of the American Farm Bureau Federation states that Ketchum “seeks out negative (biotech-related) tweets on Twitter. We started that earlier this year. They’ll monitor for negative tweets and then ask (the author) to check out GMOanswers. … Since we launched that there’s been about an 80 percent reduction in negative Twitter traffic as it relates to GMOs.”[15]

[15] CLIO Awards, public relations category, 2014 winners page on GMO Answers.

[16] Carey Gillam, “U.S. GMO Crop Companies Double Down on Anti-labeling Efforts.” Reuters, July 29, 2014.

[17] David Bennett, “The Battle Over Biotech Food Labeling Heating Up.” Delta Farm Press, August 4, 2014.

[18] Carey Gillam, “U.S. GMO Crop Companies Double Down on Anti-labeling Efforts.” Reuters, July 29, 2014.

[19]Independent Expert: Bruce M. Chassy,” GMO Answers.

[20] “Bruce Chassy has received research grants from major food companies and has conducted seminars for Monsanto, Mills Labs (Minneapolis, MN, USA), Unilever (Gaithersburg, MD, USA), Genencor (S. San Francisco, CA, USA), Amgen (Thousand Oaks, CA, USA), Connaught Labs (now part of Aventis, Strasbourg, France) and Transgene (Strasbourg, France).” Virginia A. Sharpe and Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Competing Interests.” Nature Biotechnology 21, 1131 (2003) doi:10.1038/nbt1003-1131a.

[21]Independent Expert: Hans Sauer.” GMO Answers. Sauer’s bio states that he has “18 years of in-house experience in the biotechnology industry.”

[22]Independent Expert: Kent Bradford.” GMO Answers.

[23] Kent J. Bradford, “Prop. 37: More Than Meets the Eye.” Woodland Daily Democrat, September 30, 2012. Michele Simon, “Did Monsanto Write This Anti-GMO Labeling Op-Ed Signed by a UC Davis Professor?Treehugger, October 4, 2012.

[24] Georgina Gustin, “PR Push by Ag and Biotech Industries Has a Secret Weapon: Moms.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 3, 2013.