Originally posted May 2019; updated November 2020
In this post, U.S. Right to Know is tracking public deception scandals involving PR firms that agrichemical giants Bayer AG and Monsanto have relied on for their product defense campaigns: FTI consulting, Ketchum PR and FleishmanHillard. These firms have long histories of using deceptive tactics to promote the political agendas of their clients, including pesticide, tobacco and oil industry defense campaigns.
NYT exposes FTI Consulting firm’s shady tactics for the oil industry: In a Nov. 11, 2020 New York Times article, Hiroko Tabuchi reveals how FTI Consulting “helped design, staff and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grassroots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.” Based on her interviews with a dozen former FTI staffers and hundreds of internal documents, Tabuchi reports on how FTI monitored environmental activists, ran astroturf political campaigns, staffed two news and information sites and wrote pro-industry articles on fracking, climate lawsuits and other hot-button issues with direction from Exxon Mobile.
Monsanto and its PR firms orchestrated GOP effort to intimidate cancer researchers: Lee Fang reported for The Intercept in 2019 on documents suggesting that Monsanto antagonized regulators and applied pressure to shape research of the world’s leading herbicide, glyphosate. The story reports on deceptive PR tactics, including how FTI Consulting drafted a letter about glyphosate science signed by a senior GOP congressman.
Monsanto documents reveal tactics to discredit public interest investigation: Internal Monsanto documents released via litigation in August 2019 revealed a range of tactics the company and its PR firms used to target journalists and other influencers who raised concerns about pesticides and GMOs, and tried to counter an investigation into their activities by U.S. Right to Know.
- Revealed: how Monsanto’s ‘intelligence center’ targeted journalists and activists, by Sam Levin, The Guardian (8.8.2019)
- I’m a journalist. Monsanto built a step-by-step strategy to destroy my reputation, by Carey Gillam, The Guardian (8.9.2019)
- Monsanto’s Campaign Against U.S. Right To Know: See the documents (9.8.2019)
See USRTK’s fact sheets, based on documents obtained from our investigation, reporting on third-parties engaged in pesticide industry defense: Tracking the Pesticide Industry Propaganda Network.
In May 2019, we reported on several scandals involving Bayer’s PR firms:
‘Monsanto File’ scandal
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.
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.” (The firms were later cleared of wrongdoing by the law firm hired by Bayer.)
- French prosecutor opens investigation over suspected Monsanto file, Reuters (5.10.19)
- Bayer says Monsanto likely kept files on influential people across Europe, Reuters (5.13.20)
- Monsanto ‘compiled dossier’ on political opponents, BBC (5.13. 20)
Posing as a reporter at Monsanto cancer trial
Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and Monsanto — FTI Consulting — was caught posing as a freelance journalist at a federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer over glyphosate cancer concerns.
The FTI Consulting employee Sylvie Barak was seen chatted up reporters about story ideas at the trial. She claimed to work for the BBC and did not disclose that she actually worked for a PR firm.
- FTI Consultant poses as journalist in Monsanto trial, AFP (5.18.19)
- Monsanto’s Spies: The agri-chemical giant has a storied history of using shady tactics to attack critics and influence the media, by Paul Thacker, Huffington Post (9.14.19)
Ketchum and FleishmanHillard run GMO PR salvo
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.
GMO Answers ‘crisis management’ success
As one sign of its success as a PR spin tool, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in 2014 in the category of “Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In this video for CLIO, 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.
- Seedy Business: What Big Food is Hiding with its GMO PR Campaign, by Gary Ruskin, USRTK report (2015)
- What the agrichemical and tobacco industries have in common: PR firms, operatives, tactics, by Gary Ruskin, USRTK report, Chapter 4 (2015)
Histories of deception: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum
Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum, both owned by the PR conglomerate Omnicom, in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand. Both companies have long histories of documented deception. 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.
- Black Ops, Green Groups, Why did a private security firm spy on Greenpeace and other environmental outfits?, by James Ridgeway, Mother Jones (4.11.2008)
- From Russia With PR: Commentaries written by seemingly independent professionals were placed on behalf of the Russian government by its PR firm, Ketchum, by Justin Elliot, ProPublica (9.12.13)
FTI Consulting: climate deception, 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.
- Exxon scrambles to contain climate crusade, Politico (5.9.2016)
- FTI Consulting reps pose as reporters to query lawyer leading climate lawsuit against the company, The Climate Docket (1.21.19)
More reporting on Bayer’s PR scandals
Coverage in French
- Monsanto File: Dozens of people classified illegally according to their position on glyphosate, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, Le Monde (5.9.19).
- Monsanto File: The World Complains, by Luc Bronner, Le Monde (5.9.19)
- Monsanto classified personalities according to their position on the glyphosate, by Sébastien Sabiron, France 2 TV, (5.10.19)
- Suspicion of illegal registration by Monsanto: an open judicial inquiry and new complaints in preparation,” by Le Monde with AFP (5.11.19)
- Video from France 2 with reactions from people listed in the Monsanto File
Coverage in English
- France 24 debate with Carey Gillam, Nina Holland, Francois Veillerette and Kavin Senapathy
- Bayer’s Legal Woes Escalate With Probe Into Monsanto File,” by Ruth Bender, Wall Street Journal (5.13.19)
- Bayer Suspends Agency Relationships Pending Monsanto Investigation,” by Arun Sudhamen, Holmes Report (5.13.19)
- Bayer apologizes over secret list of Monsanto critics, Deutsche Welle (5.12.19)