Biotech PR taking a new twist (18/12/2003)

For an incisive account in the African context of what is being referred to here, see Trade Wars and Media Campaigns by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies
Biotech taking a new twist
Guelph Mercury, Canada, by Owen Roberts
Dec 15, 2003

After more than a decade of taking on weighty battles against anti-technology advocates, trying to win media support and stretching its resources to the max, Canada's biotechnology industry is about to embark on a different approach to communications.

In 2004, you'll continue to hear a lot about biotechnology. There are all kinds of developments pending, particularly enhanced rice for developing countries, that will make headlines and raise eyebrows.

But you're likely to see and hear less from biotechnology companies and the organizations representing them.

For example, fewer paid advertisements -- like those ones extolling the virtues of high-tech bananas, canola and tomatoes -- will be placed by the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), the organization representing leading biotechnology companies.

These ads will still appear, but in select venues -- television on airplanes, trade journals, or industry-specific publications, among them.

It's part of the industry's strategy to channel its resources into battles it can win, and reach audiences that will listen to its messages.

Rather than trying to convince everyone biotechnology has something to offer, the industry will concentrate on those who are at least neutral when it comes to new technology.

Watch for regional initiatives and spokespeople to be developed -- people like dietitians, who are a part of the health-care system -- local sources who'll stand up, be counted and say they believe in a science-based regulatory system, in a variety of forums.

These people won't pound the table for biotechnology per se. Instead, they'll be mobilized to talk about supporting access to the best tools available to grow crops, make medicine, implement health strategies and improve life in general.

Biotechnology will be one of the tools they mention. This approach is very much in keeping with product introductions.

When a company launches something with a certain benefit, it's not the science that created it that gets highlighted, it's the benefit to users. That's where biotechnology is headed.

Does that mean it will be hidden? Hopefully not.

A test case for this approach's effectiveness was seen in the fall when the CBI brought forward Dr. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan biologist, to explain to North American audiences her take on why Africa wants and needs biotechnology.

She was a big hit on the speaking circuit, because she represented a region North Americans heard a lot about, but very little from.  And she had a strong message: Don't hold back technology that can help.

She was more concerned about helping ease starvation than she was about academic discussions concerning drought-tolerant crops developed through biotechnology.

"I want access to anything I can get," she said, over and over. "Do not remove a tool for us to feed ourselves."

So, in this case, biotechnology was indeed being communicated ... by someone other than a company or a self-interest group.

The debate about biotechnology has become too polarized for much to be gained by either side, trying to convince the converted.

But the issues persist, and industry needs to somehow stay in the public eye.

If it doesn't, it's open to a lot of criticism.

One of the big reasons biotechnology has the stigma it does today is because the industry was so ill-advised in its infancy, told to remain quiet because the public would be scared by technology.

That backfired, and it can't afford to retreat now. It needs avenues to inform the truly curious.

And it needs to wade into battle with those who challenge it. People have a democratic right to voice opinions about their society, and mainly through the agri-food system, biotechnology is becoming a bigger part of it. The industry must remain above ground and visible.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph. His column normally appears Mondays.

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