Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, FTI Consulting

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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.

“This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices.”

Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist also on the list, told France 24 that it contained personal contact details, 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 has since admitted that FleishmanHillard drew up “‘watch lists’ of pro- or anti-pesticides figures” in seven countries across Europe, the AFP reported. The lists contained information about journalists, politicians and other interest groups. The AFP said it filed a complaint with a French regulatory agency because some of its journalists were on the list that surfaced in France.

Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another PR firm was caught posing as a freelance journalist who worked for the BBC at the recent federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer. The woman, who was seen chatting up reporters about story ideas at the trial, did not disclose that she actually worked for FTI Consulting, a “crisis management firm” whose clients include Bayer and Monsanto.

In the wake of the “Monsanto File” revelations in France, 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. “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.

Ketchum and FleishmanHillard hired to rehab image of GMOs

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of its embattled GMO and pesticide products. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to “reshape” its reputation amid “fierce opposition” to genetically modified foods, according to the Holmes Report. Around the same time, FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) — a trade group funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF — hired Ketchum public relations firm 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 as he worked behind the scenes with Monsanto on PR projects. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her how to “win over people in the room” at an IQ2 debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also gave the professor talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics were important messengers for industry lobbying efforts to oppose GMO labeling, reported the New York Times 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. Many of those online interactions are from accounts that appear independent and do not disclose their connection to industry’s PR campaign.

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.”

This Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it.

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.

FTI Consulting: climate deception and more tobacco ties

FTI Consulting, the “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and whose employee was caught impersonating a journalist at the recent Roundup cancer trial in San Francisco, shares several similarities with FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, including its use of covert tactics, lack of transparency and history of working with the tobacco industry.

The firm is known as a key player in ExxonMobil’s efforts to evade responsibility for climate change. As Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported in Politico in 2016:

“Aside from [Exxon] itself, the most vocal resistance to the greens has come from FTI Consulting, a firm filled with former Republican aides that has helped unify the GOP in defense of fossil fuels. Under the banner of Energy in Depth, a project it runs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, FTI has peppered reporters with emails that suggest “collusion” between green activists and state AGs, and has raised questions over InsideClimate’s Rockefeller grants.”

FTI Consulting employees have been caught impersonating journalists before. Karen Savage reported in January 2019 in Climate Liability News, “Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages. The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry.” According to Climate Liability News, the two men were listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by oil interests and staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, which also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign.”

Energy In Depth presented itself as a “mom and pop shop” representing small energy providers but was created by major oil and gas companies to lobby for deregulation, DeSmog blog reported in 2011. The Greenpeace group uncovered a 2009 industry memo describing Energy In Depth as a “new industry-wide campaign… to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing” that “would not be possible without the early financial commitments” of major oil and gas interests including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

Another feature in common with all these firms is their tobacco industry ties. FTI Consulting has “a long history of working with the tobacco industry,” according to Tobacco Tactics.org. A search of the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents library brings up over 2,400 documents relating to FTI Consulting.

More on Bayer’s recent PR scandals

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Independent Women’s Forum: Koch-Funded Group Defends Pesticide, Oil, Tobacco Industries

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Funded largely by right-wing foundations that push climate science denial, the Independent Women’s Forum also partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations. IWF got its start in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group also defended Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the face of sexual assault allegations, and described Kavanaugh as a “champion of women.

See: “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh, The Nation 

The Independent Women ‘s Forum now says it works for policies that “enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities.” In practice, the group advocates for deregulating toxic products and works to deflect the blame for health and environmental harms away from polluting corporations and toward personal responsibility. The 2017 annual IWF gala in Washington DC drew Republican leaders, awarded IWF board member Kellyanne Conway, and was sponsored by chemical and tobacco companies, among others. 

See: “The Politics of Cancer and Infertility,” by Stacy Malkan, Huffington Post 

Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations

Most of the known donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are men, as Lisa Graves wrote for the Center for Media and Democracy in 2016. IWF has received over $15 million in donations since 1998, largely from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free reign, according to data collected by Greenpeace USA. IWF’s leading contributors, with more than $5 million in donations, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the secretive funds, known as the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement,“connected withCharles and David Koch.These funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to third-party groups that lobby for corporate interests.

IWF’s top funder: dark money from undisclosed donors

Koch family foundations directly contributed more than $844,115 and other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Randolph Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation), and Searle Freedom Trust — all of these are leading funders of groups that push climate-science denial, and they also fund chemical industry front groups that deny science about the harm of pesticides, push GMOs and flak for Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.

ExxonMobil and Philip Morris are also among IWF’s funders, according to documents from the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library.Phillip Morris named IWF in a list of “potential third party references” and “those who respect our views.” In their book “Merchants of Doubt” Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described IWF as one of the “seemingly grass-roots organizations” funded by the Philip Morris Corporation that focus on “individual liberties” and “regulatory issues.”

Rush Limbaugh has donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, which “defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” according to an article by Eli Clifton in The Nation.

IWF leaders

Chair of the Board of Directors of IWF, is also the CEO of the Independent Women’s Voice, the lobby arm of IWF. Higgins held senior positions in numerous right-wing foundations, including the Randolph Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member.
Directors Emeritae include Lynne V.Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O.Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as Vice Chairman of IWF’s Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.

IWF’s agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:

Denies climate science

A 2019 tweet and article from the Independent Women’s Forum praises President Trump’s “pragmatism” in not acting to curb climate change. 

Greenpeace describes IWF as a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Group” that “has spread misinformation on climate science and touts the work of climate deniers.” 

Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in 2010: “The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group’s board.”

Opposes teaching climate science in schools

The Denver Post reported in 2010 that IWF “thinks global warming is ‘junk science’ and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren.” Through a campaign called “Balanced Education for Everyone,” IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as “alarmist global warming indoctrination.”

IWF President Carrie Lucas writes about the “growing skepticism about climate change” and argues “the public could pay dearly for the hysteria.”

Partners with Monsanto

IWF is a leading messenger for promoting toxic chemicals as nothing to worry about, opposing public health protections and trying to build trust for corporations like Monsanto. According to IWF’s “Culture of Alarmism” project, sharing information about hazardous chemicals in consumer products leads to “wasted tax dollars, higher costs and inferior goods for consumers, fewer jobs … and a needlessly worried, less free American populace.”

In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled “Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today’s Culture of Alarmism,” and an IWF podcast that month discussed “How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists.”

IWF pushes the talking points of Monsanto and the chemical industry: promoting GMOs and pesticides, attacking the organic industry and opposing transparency in food labels. Examples include:

  • Vermont’s GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
  • Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
  • Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
  • General Mills caved in to the “food police” by removing GMOs (USA Today)
  • Chipotle is stuffing their non-GMO burritos with nonsense. (IWF)
  • Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
  • GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)
  • Educates celebrity moms about GMOs with Monsanto’s talking points (IWF)

2019 update: Julie Gunlock’s “Culture of Alarmism” project is now renamed the “Project for Progress and Innovation.” Recent articles by Gunlock include “Soda Bans Don’t Make Kids Healthier!” and “FDA’s Refusal to Promote E-Cigarettes is a Public Health Crisis.” 

Argues ‘Philips Morris PR’

In August 2017, IWF lobbied FDA to approve Philip Morris’ IQOS e-cigarettes, arguing that women need the products for various biological reasons to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes.

“Clearly, the FDA doesn’t intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that’s precisely what’s going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes,” IWF wrote.

In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said: “This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking.”

Champions corporate-friendly “food freedom”

IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “government nannies,” for example describing the agency as “food Marxists” and “completely out of control” for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.

A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance

In 2012, IWF launched a “Women for Food Freedom” project to “push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility” for food choices. The agenda included opposing “food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches.”

On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann,Julie Gunlock of IWF’s Culture of Alarmism Project argues thatcorporations are not to blame for America’s obesity problem but rather “people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out.” The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.

Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures

IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, “Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia” by Naomi Schafer Riley.

Under the guise of complaining about “mom shaming,” Riley – who isan IWF fellowbut did not disclose that to readers – attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food.

Riley’s article relied on information from industry front groups that she falsely presented as independent sources:

  • Riley described Academics Review –a front groupfunded by the agrichemical industryand startedwith the help of Monsantoto attack the organic industry and critics of GMOs –as “a nonprofit group of independent scientists.”
  • Riley used the Alliance for Food and Farming, a foodindustry front group,to counter “the most common mommy worry — pesticides” with the message that pesticides are nothing to worry about.
  • A key source, Julie Gunlock, was identified as an author but not as an employee of IWF and Riley’s colleague.

Partners with chemical industry front groups

IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicalswith deep ties to Monsanto and Syngenta. ACSH is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco and other industry groups.

  • In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF “debunked Rachel Carson’s alarmism on toxic chemicals”
  • ACSH was “fully behind” IWF’s “culture of alarmism letter” opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
  • IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this “hazmat parenting” event,featured ACSH representative Josh Bloom andchemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.

As many journalists and articles have pointed out, IWF also partners with many other Koch-funded activist groups that deny climate science and push the deregulatory agenda of corporations.

For further reading:

The Intercept,”Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions,” by Lee Fang(4/4/2017)

The Nation,“Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Most Known Donors of the Independent Women’s Forum are Men,” by Lisa Graves(8/24/2016)

Center for Media and Democracy, “Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women’s Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan(4/21/2016)

Slate,“Confirmation Bias: How ‘Women for Judge Thomas’ turned into a conservative powerhouse,” by Barbara Spindel(4/7/2016)

Truthout, “Independent Women’s Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda,” by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)

Inside Philanthropy,“The Money Behind the Conservative Women’s Groups Still Fighting the Culture War,”by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)

The Nation,”Guess Which Women’s Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it’s the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade,” by Eli Clifton(6/12/2014)

The New Yorker,”The Koch Brothers Covert Operations,” by Jane Mayer(8/30/2010)

Oxford University Press, “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics,” by Ronnee Schreiber(2008)

Inside Philanthropy,”Look Who’s Funding This Top Conservative Women’s Group,” by Joan Shipps (11/26/2014)

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “Conservative Women are Right for Media Mainstream; Media Have Finally Found Some Women to Love,” by Laura Flanders (3/1/1996)