What the agrichemical and tobacco industries have in common: PR firms, operatives, tactics

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

When assessing whether or not to trust the agrichemical companies and their genetically engineered food, it is noteworthy that several of their public relations firms were once employed by the tobacco industry in its efforts to evade responsibility and liability for the millions of Americans they killed. [1] These PR efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry – perhaps the most significant and destructive PR campaign ever – raise questions about whether these same firms are spinning a similarly deceitful PR campaign for the agrichemical industry to hide any health or environmental risks of genetically engineered food.

Tobacco Institute’s PR firm tasked with reviving Monsanto’s image & spinning Bayer

Americans have a negative view of Monsanto, and it’s getting worse. In a 2013 Harris poll measuring the “reputation quotient” of “the most visible companies,” Monsanto performed poorly, ranking 47th out of 60 companies. [2] In the 2014 Harris Poll, it fell to third to last, “above BP and Bank of America and just behind Halliburton.” [3] Bloomberg Businessweek even titled its recent profile of Monsanto, “Inside Monsanto, America’s Third-Most-Hated Company.” [4] Politico’s recent profile of Monsanto’s PR woes began with “Monsanto is the agriculture world’s prince of darkness, spreading its demonic genetically modified seeds on fields all over the earth….” [5]

In 2013, to boost its public image, Monsanto has hired the PR firm Fleishman Hillard to “reshape” its reputation “amid fierce opposition to the seed giant’s genetically modified products,” as the PR industry’s Holmes Report put it. It notes that the companies – both headquartered in St. Louis:

have a solid historic relationship. After previously serving as the company’s AOR [Agency of Record] in the 80s, FH has more recently worked on branding and comms projects for some of the company’s divisions…. According to sources familiar with the situation, Monsanto is aiming [to] develop a more cohesive communications approach, in the face of sustained NGO criticism. [6]

Among other things, Monsanto is trying to resuscitate its image with “mommy bloggers,” trying to convince them that Monsanto is really a “sustainable agriculture company.” [7]

In 2013, Fleishman Hillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer. [8]

The Tobacco Institute was the cigarette industry’s main lobbying organization. And Fleishman Hillard worked as its public relations firm. In its resignation letter to the Tobacco Institute in 1993, Fleishman Hillard’s Richard J. Sullivan notes that “Our company has represented the Institute for the past seven and a half years….We always believed that we provided excellent service to you and the Institute, and in return you have always been very generous and supportive of us.” [9]

In the Washington Post, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how Fleishman Hillard 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. [10]

Fleishman Hillard was also caught using unethical tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates. According to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health, Fleishman Hillard conducted espionage against tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds. It even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences. [11] However, in recent years, Fleishman Hillard has worked on a number of anti-smoking campaigns.

Ogilvy & Mather, DuPont Pioneer’s PR Firm, Worked for the Tobacco Institute

DuPont Pioneer is the world’s second largest seed producer, and a major producer of genetically engineered seeds.

On March 26, 2012, the Des Moines Register reported that Pioneer had hired the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather, which also represents Pioneer’s corporate parent, DuPont. [12] Ogilvy & Mather’s work on behalf of DuPont Pioneer has been highly regarded. The PR Society of America awarded Ogilvy PR and DuPont Pioneer its highest honor, “Best of the Anvils,” for producing a PR campaign to obfuscate the responsibility of DuPont and its neonicotinoid pesticides in the ongoing crisis afflicting the world’s bees. [13]

Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs also worked for the Tobacco Institute, then the principal lobbying arm of the tobacco industry. According to a 1987 agreement between Ogilvy and the Tobacco Institute, “Ogilvy will provide The Institute public affairs consulting services….[including] assistance in strategy development and implementation, writing assignments as appropriate, and initiating and maintaining contact with targeted coalition groups.” [14] Ogilvy also conducted “media tours” for the Tobacco Institute regarding matters such as “indoor air quality,” “environmental tobacco smoke,” and “economic issues.” [15]

Ketchum’s work for the tobacco industry

The Council for Biotechnology has hired Ketchum to produce its major PR campaign and website, GMO Answers. [16]

Ketchum, McLeod and Grove also wrote copy for Brown & Williamson’s cigarette advertising campaigns. For example, they prepared copy to convince Americans to smoke Fact cigarettes because they were supposedly less dangerous than other cigarettes.

Is Fact a safer cigarette? You like to smoke. You enjoy it. But just to be on the safe side, you settle for a low-‘tar.’ Well, according to the critics, that’s not safe enough….If you think they’re right, then you should smoke Fact… [17]

Two Syngenta PR firms worked for the tobacco industry

According to news reports, Syngenta hired the PR firm Jayne Thompson & Associates to help spin a massive 2004 lawsuit against it regarding atrazine. [18] On its website, Jayne Thompson’s firm boasts of its work on behalf of Altria, the parent company of tobacco firm Philip Morris USA, “to craft and manage a high-stakes integrated crisis, media relations and public affairs campaign” resulting in, among other things, “more than a dozen supportive editorials…strong Illinois media coverage…national editorial support and international press attention.” [19]

In the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv notes that after a critical New York Times article about atrazine, Syngenta hired a PR firm called the White House Writers Group to help defend its embattled herbicide. [20] Among other things, Syngenta’s PR firm, the White House Writers Group, has also done PR work for the Philip Morris tobacco company, including work on speeches, talking points and fact sheets. [21]

Top operative against GMO labeling was outside counsel to Philip Morris

Tom Hiltachk is the managing partner of the Sacramento law firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk LLP. He was the treasurer for the front group/campaign committee that the agrichemical and food industries employed to oppose Proposition 37, the 2012 California ballot initiative for labeling of genetically engineered food. [22] Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk represented the “No on 37” campaign. [23] Donations to the “No on 37” campaign went directly to Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk’s offices. [24]

Hiltachk is a former outside counsel to Philip Morris. [25] Among his other work on behalf of the tobacco industry, he also represented “Californians for Smokers Rights” [26] and the “Cigarettes Cheaper!” chain stores in their opposition to the collection of California tobacco taxes. [27]

“No on 37” opposition research firm worked for tobacco giant Altria

MB Public Affairs is an opposition research firm that that was hired by the “No on 37” campaign to defeat GMO labeling in California. [28] Previously, MB Public Affairs worked for the tobacco company Altria (formerly Philip Morris Cos.), according to the Los Angeles Times. [29]

Using the tobacco industry playbook by pretending to care (about farmers and sustainability)

The tobacco industry was famous for its self-serving advertising and public relations campaigns to make smokers think that it cared about them, while it was actually promoting a product that, when used as intended, is often deadly.

For example, in 1953, the tobacco company Liggett & Myers ran an advertising campaign called “Best For You,” in which it promoted its Chesterfield cigarettes as “Best for you.” [30] One of its 1954 ads featured the claim that Chesterfields were “The cigarette tested and approved by 30 years of scientific tobacco research.” [31] Another set of advertisements for Virginia Slims promoted the idea that cigarettes could help smokers to be slim, beautiful and empowered. [32] Many other tobacco ad campaigns ran in a similar vein.

Of course, the tobacco companies cared only about profits, not smokers, but this ruse helped to hook generations of smokers.

In a similar way, just as tobacco companies pretended to care about smokers, the agrichemical companies pretend to care about farmers and sustainability, when what they really care about is profits.

The agrichemical industry uses farmers as spokespeople because Americans typically view farmers as trustworthy and honorable. For example, Monsanto has produced a website titled “American Farmers,” [33] packed with beautiful and moving photographs of farmers and their families, and bountiful harvests of crops. Here’s what Monsanto says it wants to accomplish: “Through our America’s Farmers programs, we hope to help educate consumers about modern agriculture, grow rural communities and schools, and celebrate women in agriculture.” [34]

The website celebrates farmers and farming in myriad ways. “Farmers do more than feed, fuel and clothe the world,” Monsanto’s website says. “They are the life blood of rural communities, supporting the local economy and giving back to the community whenever possible.” [35] It even gives out awards and “recognition” for farmers and their families.

In essence, Monsanto is trying to associate itself and its genetically engineered crops with the positive halo of our nation’s farmers, and to use that to boost its profits.

Undoubtedly, American farmers and their families do heroic things every day, and get less credit than they deserve. So many work hard, and go without thanks, celebration or even much compensation, to feed our country and our planet. So, of course American farmers deserve celebration. But what is wrong with these PR efforts is the cynical use of good farmers and their families – not to help them, but rather to bolster Monsanto and its profits.

The food and agrichemical companies and their front groups also use farmers prominently in their negative campaign ads against labeling of genetically engineered food, because farmers are seen as trustworthy. Farmers were used as spokespeople in ads in the campaigns against GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California, [36] Washington, [37] Oregon [38] and Colorado. [39] In California, the name of the industry front group campaign committee against GMO labeling was “No On 37: Coalition Against The Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored By Farmers And Food Producers,” [40] even though most of the money for the campaign came from big agrichemical and food companies.

In a similar vein, Monsanto’s new national advertising campaign includes a 60-second spot titled “Food is Love,” that cynically tries to associate itself with the warmth and love that comes out of sharing food with friends and family. In this emotional spot, Monsanto is pretending that it cares about you and your loved ones. [41]

Just as the agrichemical industry pretends to care about farmers, and about you, it also pretends to care about “sustainability.” Of course, given the adverse impact of herbicides like Roundup on soil health, [42] there may well be few things less sustainable than spraying vast quantities such herbicides on crops and fields across the planet. [43] Nevertheless, for example, Monsanto boasts often and loudly that it embraces the idea of “sustainability,” producing slick websites (posted at sustainability.monsanto.com), [44] beautiful videos on sustainability, [45] along with a “commitment to sustainable agriculture,” and statements professing its “vision for sustainable agriculture.” [46]

These protestations from Monsanto in support of “sustainability” are ironic, as they come from a company that produced huge quantities of toxic chemicals and pollution. For example, Monsanto was the main manufacturer of toxic PCBs. The dangerous legacy of Monsanto’s PCB pollution remains, especially in the town of Anniston, Alabama, [47] and it is incompatible with the idea of sustainability.

Dow Chemical and Monsanto were also the primary manufacturers of Agent Orange, an infamous herbicide used during the Vietnam War. About 20 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam. [48] The herbicide was contaminated with 2, 3, 7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), which is a highly toxic chemical. Monsanto was also a manufacturer of the infamous pesticide DDT. Again, this record is incompatible with sustainability.


[1] “More than 20 million Americans have died as a result of smoking since the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health was released in 1964…..Between 2005-2009, smoking was responsible for more than 480,000 premature deaths annually among Americans 35 years of age and older.” “The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress.” U.S. Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014. See also generally Robert N. Proctor, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011). Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America. (New York: Basic Books, 2007). Stanton A. Glantz, John Slade, Lisa A. Bero, Peter Hanauer and Deborah E. Barnes, The Cigarette Papers. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco.

[2] Harris Poll 2013 RQ Summary Report. Harris Interactive, February 2013.

[3] Drake Bennett, “Inside Monsanto, America’s Third-Most-Hated Company.” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 3, 2014.

[4] Drake Bennett, “Inside Monsanto, America’s Third-Most-Hated Company.” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 3, 2014.

[5] Jenny Hopkinson, “Monsanto Confronts Devilish Public Image Problem.” Politico, November 29, 2013.

[6] Arun Sudhaman, “Monsanto Selects FleishmanHillard To Reshape Reputation.” The Holmes Report, July 24, 2013.

[7] Sarah Henry, “Monsanto Woos Mommy Bloggers.” Modern Farmer, September 18, 2014.

[8] Virgil Dickson, “Bayer Brings on Fleishman for Global Issues Account.” PR Week, August 1, 2013.

[9] Correspondence from Richard J. Sullivan, Fleishman Hillard to Susan Stuntz, Senior Vice President, Tobacco Institute, April 16, 1993. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Bates No. TIOK0011478.

[10] Morton Mintz, “Second-hand Money.” Washington Post, March 24, 1996.

[11] Ruth E. Malone, “Tobacco Industry Surveillance of Public Health Groups: The Case of STAT and INFACT.” American Journal of Public Health, June 2002. 92(6): 955–960.

[12] Dan Piller, “Pioneer Shifts Ad, PR Agency Work.” Des Moines Register, March 26, 2012.

[13] Jack O’Dwyer, “PRSA Award-Winning DuPont Linked to Bee Deaths.” Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter, December 11, 2013.

[14] Correspondence from William Kloepfer, Jr., Senior Vice President, The Tobacco Institute Inc., to Joseph L. Powell, Jr., Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather Public Affairs. June 30, 1987. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. Bates No. TI01480030-TI01480031.

[15] Correspondence from Peter G. Sperber, The Tobacco Institute, to Joseph L. Powell, Jr., Chairman & CEO, Ogilvy & Mather. August 18, 1987. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. Bates No. TI01480028-TI01480029.

[16] 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.

[17] Ketchum, McLeod and Grove, “Safety (critics)/Challenge Combination.” Advertising copy for Brown & Williamson, May 13, 1976. Now that the tobacco industry is in disrepute, Ketchum has switched sides. In May 2014, Legacy announced that Ketchum is the public relations agency of record for both Legacy and its Truth campaign.

[18] Ameet Sachdev, “PR Executive Sets Off Firestorm With Proposal to Discredit Madison County Court System.” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 2011.

[19] Jayne Thompson & Associates, “Crisis Communications, Media Relations & Public Affairs ”.

[20] Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation.” New Yorker, February 10, 2014. See also Clare Howard, “Syngenta’s Campaign to Protect Atrazine, Discredit Critics.” Environmental Health News, June 17, 2013.

[21] See, for example, Memorandum for Craig Fuller, Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Philip Morris Companies, from Clark S. Judge, White House Writers Group, “Regarding Written Deliverables Called For By PM-RJR Task Force.” March 12, 1993. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. Bates No. 2048596137-2048596141A. Memorandum for Craig L. Fuller, Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Philip Morris Companies, from Clark S. Judge, Managing Partner, White House Writers Group, “Regarding Edited Versions of First Round Speeches.” June 2, 1993. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California, San Francisco. Bates No. 2023923028-2023923029.

[22] See the campaign finance electronic filings of “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers.” California Secretary of State.

[23] See campaign finance disclosures of “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers.” California Secretary of State.

[24] Michele Simon, “Big Tobacco Shills Trying to Stop GMO Labeling in California.” Huffington Post, August 14, 2012.

[25] Stella Aguinaga, Stanton A. Glantz, “The Use of Public Records Acts to Interfere with Tobacco Control.” Tobacco Control, September 1995, 4(3): 222–230. Lee Fang, “Smelling A Chance To Burn Oil Money, Tobacco Lobbyists Orchestrate Effort To Repeal CA Clean Energy Law.” Think Progress, July 27, 2010.

[26] Stella Aguinaga, Stanton A. Glantz, “The Use of Public Records Acts to Interfere with Tobacco Control.” Tobacco Control, September 1995, 4(3): 222–230. Lee Fang, “Smelling A Chance To Burn Oil Money, Tobacco Lobbyists Orchestrate Effort To Repeal CA Clean Energy Law.” Think Progress, July 27, 2010.

[27]Judge Rejects Tobacco Firms’ Challenge to Collection of Taxes Under Prop. 10.” Associated Press/Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2000.

[28] See campaign finance disclosures of “No on 37: Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme, Sponsored by Farmers and Food Producers.” California Secretary of State.

[29] Jim Newton, “A Mysterious Inquiry.” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2011.

[30]Best for You.” Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, Stanford School of Medicine.

[31]Today’s Chesterfield is the Best Cigarette Ever Made! ” Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, Stanford School of Medicine.

[32]Virginia Slims Before 1989.” Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, Stanford School of Medicine.

[33] Monsanto’s American Farmers website.

[34]Your Day Begins With a Farmer.” Monsanto’ American Farmers website.

[35]Recognition Programs.” Monsanto’s America’s Farmers website.

[36]Farmer Ted Sheely: No On 37.” Advertisement for No on 37.

[37]Third-Generation Farmer: Brenda Alford.” Advertisement for No on 522.

[38] No on 92 commercials, “Farmer Matt ” and “Three Generations.”

[39] No on 105 commercials, “Farmer Veronica Lasater,” and “Modern Beet Varieties.”

[40] Their campaign finance filings are available from the California Secretary of State.

[41] See Maria Altman, “Monsanto Appeals Directly To Consumers In New Ad Campaign.” St. Louis Public Radio, November 5, 2014. “Food is Love.” Monsanto commercial, November 5, 2014.

[42] See, for example, Stephanie Strom, “Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil.” New York Times, September 19, 2013. Carey Gillam, “Roundup Herbicide Research Shows Plant, Soil Problems.” Reuters, August 12, 2011.

[43] See, for example, “Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture.” Union of Concerned Scientists, January 4, 2012.

[44]Monsanto’s Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability,” Monsanto website.

[45] See, for example, “Monsanto Company: Committed to Sustainable Agriculture, Committed to Farmers,” and “Monsanto’s Commitment to Sustainable Agriculture.”

[46]Our Commitment to Sustainable Agriculture.” Monsanto website.

[47] See, for example, Michael Grunwald, “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution.” Washington Post, January 1, 2002. Brett Israel, “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Dirty Soil and Diabetes.” Scientific American, June 13, 2012. Ellen Crean, “Toxic Secret.” 60 Minutes, CBS News, November 7, 2002.

[48] Clyde Haberman, “Agent Orange’s Long Legacy, for Vietnam and Veterans.” New York Times, May 11, 2014.

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