When the world’s largest biotechnology conference came to Toronto in June 2002 the Biotechnology Industry Organization charged Fleishman-Hillard with ensuring that positive images about food and agriculture biotechnology dominated media coverage, minimizing the impact of an anti-biotech counter conference.
Public awareness of biotechnology’s potential remained low. Crop and food applications continued to draw activist attention and negative media coverage. Opponents set up a website to publicize anti-BIO 2002 events, attract new supporters and promote anti-biotech misinformation. Under the umbrella “biodevastation/biojustice 2002”, leading anti-biotechnology groups, including Greenpeace, promoted a counter-conference and protest picnic to move the focus of media attention to stories of “Frankenfoods” and a technology moving “too fast forward”. They took advantage of the weekend lead into BIO 2002 to stage a two-day teach-in featuring high profile Canadian and international sympathizers.
With biotech food labeling regulations on the line in Canada, heightened public sensitivity about food safety and international media looking for a Seattle-style confrontation, BIO was determined not to allow adversaries to derail the most noteworthy meeting on the biotechnology calendar.
FH created a buzz with a controversial biotechnology advocate, a first-ever media brunch kick-off event profiling great biotech stories and advocates scheduled to overlap the protest picnic and intensive media outreach throughout the conference.
Analysis of focus group and survey research told us that agricultural biotechnology represented both a real threat to the success of the conference and a considerable opportunity to present a very good news story. Eighty per cent of Canadians surveyed said they were interested in knowing more about biotechnology. Consumer research in Canada showed that Canadians were more inclined to accept drugs produced through biotechnology than crops or foods, where the perceived personal benefits are not clear. Research also showed that two-thirds of Canadians had ongoing concerns about food safety. They were easily aroused by anything they perceived might impact the quality of the food they eat.
The objectives were to communicate the benefits of biotechnology to consumers; to debunk activist myths and expose their scare tactics; and to sustain a positive image and reputation for biotechnology.
 FH decided to turn a Sunday brunch for registered media into an event that would rival the opponents’ key platform, occur in the same news cycle and draw media attention from it. FH kept on top of activist plans via the Internet. To ensure coordination and maximum exposure for BIO2002 events, FH met regularly with BIO’s volunteer committee. FH prepared scientist, farmer and dietitian advocates for media interviews and identified five young companies to profile, representing a range of exciting biotechnology applications that showcased the technology’s potential. Local, national and international media lists were developed, targeting science, agricultural and biotechnology reporters.
 FH knew that activists would target the more vulnerable food and crop applications of biotechnology. Greenpeace has had considerable success with this approach, especially in Europe. For BIO 2002, activists organized an alternate conference, complete with colorful visual props of “altered” fruits, vegetables and fish, and a powerful keynote speaker. The strategy was to meet opponents head-on by shining the spotlight on agricultural biotechnology directly; challenging their strongest advocate; using third-party experts as credible, trustworthy voices in the lead-up to and throughout the conference; creating pro-biotech news events timed to coincide with the key activist platform; and, developing a rapid response mechanism to neutralize the impact of any adverse events.
The opponents’ anti-biotech picnic headlined David Suzuki, Canadian environmental icon and broadcaster as their keynote speaker. FH featured Patrick Moore, Greenpeace co-founder turned biotech supporter and former student of Dr. Suzuki’s, at the media brunch scheduled just in advance of the picnic, inviting local and international reporters to hear Dr. Moore “dismiss activist scare tactics about biotechnology”. It proved an irresistible proposition. Dr. Moore delivered, calling opponents “anti-human extremists” who rely on “junk science to support their claims”.
FH also designed the brunch as an opportunity to meet the people behind the companies that are developing plant-based insulin, drought resistant plants, biodiesel fuel and toxin-detecting food packaging through biotechnology. FH chose the companies for the interest and diversity of their research and products. Together with extensive media outreach, this produced excellent turnout and broadcast news coverage.
To keep the positive momentum throughout the three-day conference, FH arranged, among others, interviews with CTV Newsnet, a national news network. The network featured one of our profiled companies each day for four consecutive days during the week of the conference. FH organized a roster of companies and experts to appear on an hour-long biotech program on another national broadcaster, Report on Business Television (ROBTv).
FH developed a roster of pro-biotech scientists, dietitians and farmers - voices the public trusts - provided them with key messages and helped them prepare for interviews. FH arranged for them to be available to media at a moment’s notice, equipping them with pagers and coordinating their schedules, to provide an immediate counterpoint to any opposition initiative or misinformation.
As seen in the accompanying video and publicity report, FH media relations efforts produced coverage that resulted in more than 26 million impressions. The media brunch was covered by two national television networks, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Global. The third national network, CTV, did an interview with Dr. Moore the morning following the brunch on CanadaAM, Canada’s most watched morning show. A fourth television broadcaster in the Toronto region, CITY TV, covered the event and carried a live interview with Dr. Moore on its all news channel.
The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, as well as The Globe and Mail and National Post, Canada’s two national dailies, all carried positive coverage of the event and of the whole conference. Canadian Press, the national wire service, filed stories that were picked up across the country, as did international media, including the Associated Press and Reuters, some of which appeared in Canada as well as in their home markets.
Individual interviews for the companies FH profiled were arranged with CTV Newsnet, ROBTv, CITY TV and CBC radio. Both Newsnet and ROBTv coverage aired several times over the following weekend.
Media coverage incorporated the key messages about the importance and potential of biotechnology. FH achieved its primary goals, communicating the benefits of biotechnology while debunking activist myths and exposing their scare tactics. Dr. Moore’s message: “No one has had so much as a stomach ache…” from biotech foods, reached over six million Canadians directly.
While the opponents’ messages and key event got media coverage, positive messages about biotechnology and the conference outweighed the negative in print stories, both in volume and in substance. Particularly important in enhancing the reputation of biotechnology was the very positive coverage of BIO 2002’s Sunday events by CBC TV, the national public broadcaster, which is not usually a friend of the biotechnology industry. In fact, the good news literally surrounded and overwhelmed the opposition.