LONDON —  Senior PR industry figures have questioned Bayer's handling of its stakeholder mapping crisis, focusing their concern on the high-profile suspension of Monsanto agency FleishmanHillard.

After claims in Le Monde that Monsanto and its agencies — led by FleishmanHillard and including FTI Consulting, Irish firm Red Flag, Publicis Consultants, H+K Strategies and Lincoln Strategy Group — had breached French data privacy laws during the campaign to renew its glyphosate licence in Europe (the key ingredient in controversial pesticide RoundUp), Bayer publicly apologised.

The German multinational then announced it had suspended Fleishman from communications and public affairs work with its crop science division, which now includes Monsanto, before last week appointing legal counsel and suggesting it may "exit" its contract with the Omnicom PR firm.

In response, senior industry professionals have expressed sympathy for Fleishman's predicament, not only because of the routine nature of stakeholder mapping, but because Bayer's response may have complicated matters further — perhaps as a result of the delicate internal politics in play after its $60bn acquisition of Monsanto.

"It’s weird that a company would apologise up front and repeat unsubstantiated claims from journalists before they have investigated," said a global public affairs professional familiar with the situation. "I think there are layers here, with NGOs trying to undermine elements of Monsanto’s glyphosate campaign, and internal politics in terms of the new Bayer/Monsanto dynamic."

That dynamic — namely a clash of cultures between Germany's Bayer and America's Monsanto — was referred to by several sources, who noted that the US company has typically responded in aggressive fashion to a combative activist environment. "I understand it’s a difficult relationship, and Monsanto public affairs are now being shut out," said the public affairs professional.

Another senior US corporate affairs practitioner agreed that the different cultures at Bayer and its new acquisition were at the heart of the issue: “They will defend the product because there is science behind it. What they can’t do is defend Monsanto’s tactics. Monsanto was a very aggressive firm and I think they feel like those tactics, and not listening to those opponents, have worked against them and they are trying to implement a profound cultural change.”

That is, perhaps, to be expected, given that Bayer's corporate affairs team are now calling the shots, under new SVP of public and government affairs Matthias Berninger. 

Berninger, who issued the apology and subsequent statements, recently joined from a corporate affairs leadership role at Mars, but before that was in frontline politics. For 12 years, he was a member of the German parliament representing the Green Party, which has long campaigned against both GMOs and glyphosate.

"Activists have spent decades undermining Monsanto, and I don’t think Bayer were expecting it," said another public affairs professional. "They thought their reputation would be strong enough: they were a big player in pesticides but weren’t the poster child of industry issues like Monsanto.

"All of a sudden they are in the thick of it and haven’t thought through the best way of dealing with it. Their response in terms of FleishmanHillard seems to have an element of panic — they seem to have been taken aback by how aggressive the environment can be and think that if they accept the criticism, somehow they will change the game, and that’s just naïve."

Tom Parker, chief sales officer of public affairs firm SEC Global in Brussels, believes Bayer’s actions are largely political: “Monsanto is a company not without controversy and the crop protection business is an area where there has been a lot of scrutiny. I think Bayer have to be seen to be pulling out all the stops to do the right thing and take the appropriate steps to look at what has happened. Whether or not they have got things in the right order, I’m not entirely sure, and frankly I do feel for FleishmanHillard — many people could find themselves in a similar situation because it’s a massive grey area.”

Others noted that the case offered plenty for the industry to ponder, particularly in terms of the tougher regulatory landscape for data protection in Europe.

"I think FleishmanHillard got caught in something all of us need to think through," added another global public affairs source familiar with the situation. "How you collect data and how you use it really matters in this new world. They got caught doing something that three years ago wouldn’t have been an issue. All of us were a little blindsided. We do a lot of training around compliance and how you handle data, and even that wouldn’t have prepared us for what FH is going through."

Former FleishmanHillard executive Richard Houghton, who has worked with companies in similar sectors, pointed to a broader context for Bayer’s actions: “I’m guessing that because Bayer’s crop sciences division inherited Monsanto’s confrontational track record, from a PR perspective they are trying to draw a line in the sand to say ‘we’re not Monsanto and this sort of behaviour is not accepted.’ Whether that is a sensible thing to do, I’m doubtful, because the argument for GM foods is probably unwinnable as far as some pressure groups and NGOs are concerned, and deciding to take a stand around a database issue is not going to give Bayer much benefit. I would have been tempted to take a more defensive, medium-term approach around waiting for a review.”

He added: “I haven’t seen this done publicly before. Fleishman is a convenient lightning rod for Bayer being seen to take action, but from a communications perspective it was naïve. Ultimately, Monsanto’s products have entrenched opposition that requires sophisticated forms of comms and lobbying. It’s problematic because Bayer has now set a precedent, but I don’t think they’ve thought five moves ahead in making a decision they might regret.”

Meanwhile, Edouard Fillias, CEO of French agency Jin, noted that FleishmanHillard deserves the industry's support, rather than serving as a scapegoat.

“It is obvious that Monsanto and Bayer interests are not aligned," said Fillias. "My opinion is that they had to find an expiatory victim, to solve the case. I bet it is not going to be enough, as it is obvious that drafting lists is a very common business practice all around Europe, and not just for Monsanto. PR agencies have the right, even under French law, to map stakeholders based on public sources. That is not comparable to building databases conflicting with GDPR."

Lansons CEO Tony Langham also thought Bayer had mishandled the complaint: “Firstly it has made a problem stemming from Monsanto pre-acquisition into a problem with Bayer all over it by responding as it has. Secondly, it has responded too quickly and said too much before apparently knowing all of the facts. Thirdly, it has poured petrol on the fire by becoming embroiled in discussions over what its agency did or didn’t do.

“This is a good time to remember that firms like Fleishman are agencies, that is, agents of a paying client. If Fleishman did something in the pay of Monsanto, then that is Monsanto’s responsibility and it should accept that.”

On the other hand, Langham admitted that "agencies have to operate to the highest standards to be trusted by major organisations in times of high pressure and high scrutiny. This means understanding the laws (and conventions) of the countries in which they operate and being able to handle sensitive information."

Indeed, the alleged legal breach cannot be ignored either, said Pembroke & Rye founding director and chief development officer Victoria Naylor-Leyland. "You have to see both sides – stakeholder mapping is a crucial part of modern communications but we do have to be respectful of local laws," said the former Bell Pottinger partner. "Global corporations have to transcend national boundaries but also acknowledge local law. It might not have been the right process, but it’s reasonable that the client wants to investigate."

As regards that investigation, another European public affairs lead who has experience working for environmental pressure groups said that while it isn’t unusual to suspend a company or individual after an allegation has been made and while an investigation is underway, “the important thing will be to see what Bayer does if the investigation shows no wrongdoing.”

Unsurprisingly, industry trade associations are also keeping a close eye on how the case unfolds, with a focus on ethical standards. "What we feel is especially important to consider at this point is the ethical commitment of FleishmanHillard, in which their employees are instructed to report any behaviour they consider unethical; or opt out of working with clients if they have personal objections to the work," said PRCA international president Barry Leggetter in London. 

The PR Council in New York, meanwhile, claimed that stakeholder mapping does not violate the law.

“Basic tools of the PR trade – including daily media monitoring, media lists with notations about journalist reporting interests, and stakeholder engagement reports – are critical to the work we do to encourage timely and accurate dialogue between our clients and their stakeholders. These practices do not violate existing US laws, the PR Council ethics policy nor standard industry practices.

“That said, we believe that it is critically important for the reputation of our industry to align our actions with public expectations, so we are watching the situation in Europe very closely and may engage member agency leaders to discuss any policy and practice changes or public education that may be recommended.”

“NGOs and companies and politicians — they all do stakeholder mapping," added another agency source familiar with the glyphosate campaign. "If people can’t do that across professional or civil society, that’s hugely dangerous. Fleishman has been thrown under the bus for something they don’t deserve to be thrown under the bus for.

“If I were Fleishman I would be furious with how they’ve been treated. They are being hammered by their clients and can’t defend themselves."