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

Coverage in French:

Coverage in English:

The GMO Industry Doesn’t Want You to See This Video

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In this video, the GMO industry’s main PR firm, Ketchum, brags about how it spun the media on GMO issues, and how it snoops on the social media accounts of people concerned about GMOs.

The video was just taken down after we called attention to it, probably because it’s embarrassing to Ketchum and the agrichemical industry.  But we’ve put it up again, so that you can see it.

Ketchum is a fascinating PR firm.  In addition to advocating for GMOs, they are also Russia’s PR firm*.  We Americans don’t trust them when they speak for Russia and President Putin, so why should we trust them when they speak for GMOs?

Ketchum was also apparently involved in an espionage effort against nonprofit organizations concerned with GMOs.

Please do spread the word about this video.  Thanks!

*[Update: Ketchum PR announced in March 2015 that it ended its partnership with Russia for undisclosed reasons. The Russia account was actually spun off  to fellow Omnicom property GPlus, as Patrick Coffee reported in Adweek. Ketchum’s service to Russia provides “two perfect examples of why the public at large distrusts the PR industry,” Coffee wrote. In its DOJ filing, Ketchum reported terminating its relationship with the Russian Federation on Jan. 1, 2016.]

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – key facts

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Summary

* Funders include Monsanto and DuPont

* Small farmers criticized use of mandatory marketing fees to promote “Big Ag”

* Other partners include BASF, Dow

USFRA is represented by PR giant Ketchum

Ketchum’s clients include the Russian Federation

Ketchum’s work for the Russian Federation include pushing propaganda for Putin, aiding in a campaign to have Putin named Time Magazine’s 2007 “Person of the Year”

* LA Times: USFRA-funded documentary “lobbyist propaganda”

Funders Include Monsanto, DuPont

As of 2011, USFRA was to have an $11 million annual budget.

The funding would come partly from mandatory marketing fees the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, each of which committed to an annual contribution of $500,000. [New York Times, 9/27/11] 

Organization Now Claims Budget is “Less than $12 Million,” But Plans to Expand

USFRA says that its current budget “is less than $12 million,” but “Over time, we expect our program budget to grow as more affiliates and industry partners join our movement.” [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Organization Claims a Third of Funding Comes from Industry Partners

According to USFRA, 32 percent of its funding comes from its industry partners.

“68 percent of our funding is coming from farmer- and rancher-led affiliates,” the group claims. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Partners Include BASF, Dow, Merck and Others

USFRA’s “Premier Partner Advisory Group” includes both DuPont and Monsanto, while its “Industry Partner Council” includes BASF, Cargill, Dow AgroSciences, Elanco Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Syngenta and Zoetis. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/affiliates-board-participants-and-industry-partners]

Small Farmers Upset Mandatory Marketing Fees Used to Promote “Big Ag”

 In a January 2014 article, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that smaller farmers were complaining about the use of mandatory marketing fees, or checkoffs, to fund USFRA, claiming that they had to “fork over money to support activities and advertising that benefit agribusiness, but not necessarily those with small and mid-size operations.”

The article noted that USFRA’s affiliates and partners “are just the kinds of groups that are normally associated with Big Ag,” and that the articles on the USFRA tend to support industrial agriculture, including supporting the benefits of genetically modified crops.

But this caused anger from smaller farmers, including Mike Callicrate, a Colorado rancher who said he found it “very offensive” that USFRA was receiving mandatory marketing fees.

“The whole purpose of those checkoffs being made available to [USFRA] is to promote industrial agriculture that is driving the family farm right out of business,” Callicrate said. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 1/29/14]

PR Giant Ketchum Represents USFRA

In 2011, USFRA announced that PR giant Ketchum would serve as its primary communications agency. [Agri-Pulse, 3/24/11]

Russian Government Among Ketchum’s Clients, Helping Putin Generate Propaganda

Since 2006, Ketchum has served as the PR firm for the Russian Federation, helping the Russian government to place opinion pieces in American news sources, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.

One of the op-ed columns, which appeared in the New York Times, was published under the byline of Vladimir Putin. [ProPublica, 9/12/13; New York Times, 8/31/14]

The New York Times reported in 2014 that “The company still works with Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum.

The Times reported that Ketchum “said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007.” [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Represented Russian Government-Controlled Energy Company Gazprom

Until recently, Ketchum served as the PR firm for the Russian government-controlled energy company, Gazprom. [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Worked for Dow Chemical

Ketchum has worked for (and may continue to work for) Dow Chemical. [DC Court Records]

Other Ketchum Clients Include Drug Companies, Chemical Companies, Food Producers

    • Clorox Company
    • Frito-Lay
    • Hershey’s
    • Pfizer
    • Procter & Gamble
    • Wendy’s International

[O’Dwyer’s Public Relations Firm Database]

LA Times: USFRA-Funded Documentary “Lobbyist Propaganda”

In May 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a review of the documentary Farmland, that was made with the “generous support” of USFRA.

The Times review claimed the film “often comes off like lobbyist propaganda,” and a “puff piece.” While the documentary contains farmers who both support and oppose organic farming technique, the film “does not supply statistics or unaffiliated experts to substantiate or dispute any of the farmers’ claims and provide a broader perspective.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/1/14]