Founded in 1993, and originally known as as Bivings-Woodell Inc., The Bivings Group has been described as the '20th Largest Public Relations Firm in the Washington Metro Area' (Largest Public Relations Firms in the Washington Metro Area, Washington Business Journal April 2000). In addition to Washington DC, it has satellite offices in Brussels and Tokyo, and it previously had offices in Chicago and New York.
The Bivings Group's specialty is online PR - the intersection between IT and lobbying. Its slogan is 'Wired engagement. Global reach. Lasting Impact.' It has, it tells us, developed 'Internet advocacy' campaigns for corporate America since 1996 and serves 'a number of Fortune 100 clients in the biotechnology, chemical, financial, food, consumer products and telecommunications industries.' The plastics industry and 'biotechnology giant Monsanto' are amongst the notable clients 'who have discovered how to make the Internet work for them.' (Corporations Turn to Internet to Champion Political Causes, Chicago Tribune April 3, 2000) Other Bivings' clients have included Dow Chemicals, Kraft Foods, Phillip Morris, BP Amoco, Chlorine Chemistry council, and Crop Life International.
'The Bivings group has done outstanding work for Monsanto', according to a Monsanto Senior executive quoted by Bivings on its website. Its PR work for the company includes Monsanto's websites (eg Monsanto India, Monsanto UK, Monsanto France) as well as other biotech-related websites such as the biotech knowledge centre - 'a non-commercial website' promoting biotechnology.
According to the PR industry's Holmes Report:
'Bivings has worked with the life sciences company to establish websites in the U.S. and Europe to address the growing controversy over genetically modified foods. The sites provide a wealth of information on GM foods and engage the company's critics in a non-confrontational discussion of the issues. ...It received the Advocacy Award from the New Statesman, which described [its work] as being "Interesting. Openness in the face of controversy." '
Elsewhere Bivings' work for Monsanto is described as 'addressing consumer concerns about genetically modified foods in a calm and rational way, even providing access to opposing viewpoints so that-consumers can be better informed.' (Inside PR - 1999 Agency Report Card)
This image of rational open-minded engagement even with the company's critics chimes in well with Monsanto's own commitment, encapsulated in its 'New Monsanto Pledge', to principles such as transparency, dialogue and respect.
However, as The Bivings Group acknowledges on its website, 'Sometimes we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise role we played.' In addition to its publicly acknowledged role, The Bivings Group has helped Monsanto engage in covert online attacks on the company's critics - attacks that have generated considerable controversy and adverse publicity both for Bivings and Monsanto.
The work of Bivings is premised on the power of the Internet : 'Some of the most powerful message delivery tools used today are web-based and grassroots: online message boards, listservs, and web sites.' An article posted on its site states, 'Cyberspace is no longer just for citizen activists. With its savvy Internet lobbying campaigns, Corporate America has gotten off the digital sidelines. Its seasoned Washington lobbyists are turning on its head the assumption that the Internet would aid primarily resource-poor citizens groups allied against corporate interests... business groups are employing the Web to influence public opinion and mount grass-roots-style lobbying campaigns. (Corporations Turn To Internet To Champion Political Causes , Chicago Tribune, April 3, 2000)
Another article talks about 'spinning on-line discussions to favor the positions of companies and interest groups' and 'steering experts to on-line forums on behalf of clients'. The article goes on, 'Without question, these practices have made people taking part in on-line discussions suspicions. Questions about participants' identities and affiliations are becoming more common.' (Incognito Spinmeisters Battle On-Line Critics: When a Company's Product Is Under Fire, One Option is to Plant a Defender in the Chat Room, New York Times, Thursday, October 14, 1999).
The article also notes that Bivings can provide companies with a service involving the long-term monitoring of lists and forums. 'At best, the consultants can strangle misinformation in the electronic cradle. "If participated in properly," said Matt Benson, at Bivings Woodell, "these can be vehicles for shaping emerging issues." '
In an essay on Viral Marketing that appeared in April 2002 on Thebivingsreport.com, Andrew Dimock, head of Bivings' online marketing and promotions division, spelt out how to make covert interventions on a client's behalf, 'There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved. ... Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party.' (Kernels of Truth)
Bivings' covert campaign on behalf of Monsanto has been waged through the use of postings to message boards and listservs under aliases, as well as the creation of a website for a fake agriculural institute. These have been used as means to post attacks on Monsanto's critics without disclosing the company's involvement.
The website of The Center for Food & Agricultural Research (CFFAR) is not currently available, following adverse publicity, but can still be viewed in its archived form. CFFAR presents itself as "a public policy and research coalition" concerned with food and agriculture but, although links to the site were to be found from the websites of US public libraries and university departments, the