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Roundup lawsuits shed light on Monsanto's internal — and controversial — PR strategies

Roundup lawsuits shed light on Monsanto's internal — and controversial — PR strategies


ST. LOUIS — More than a year after Bayer gobbled it up, Monsanto has managed to stay in the headlines, thanks to a mountain of lawsuits that allege its moneymaking weedkiller Roundup causes cancer. Like Monsanto, Bayer insists the widely used product is safe, but three big jury verdicts have found otherwise.

“It’s been a little bit more noisy than expected,” Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s crop science division, conceded during a recent visit to the company’s St. Louis-area facilities. “The noise is completely related to glyphosate,” he added, referring to the active ingredient in Roundup. “For sure, there’s a speed bump with the glyphosate litigation, but that’s not going to last forever.”

But the product liability lawsuits — the company is now being sued by more than 18,400 plaintiffs — haven’t just raised questions about a weedkiller that’s been on the market since the early 1970s, they’ve also offered a rare glimpse into Monsanto’s internal public relations strategy when under fire.

To shape public perception about Roundup, the biotechnology giant formerly headquartered in Creve Coeur engaged in a coordinated push to counteract negative publicity — efforts that included moves to discredit critical journalists and activists, and also aimed to influence search engine results online, according to records divulged in the lawsuits against the company.

Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, Los Angeles-based trial lawyers who have handled many of the anti-Roundup cases, have been selectively posting Monsanto documents, including internal correspondence, starting in 2017.

The latest trove of documents, released in July, detail a range of glyphosate-targeted efforts from Monsanto officials over the years.

One notable focus for the company, according to the documents, was Carey Gillam, a former journalist for Reuters who now serves as research director for U.S. Right to Know, which characterizes itself as “a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry.”

In 2017, Gillam published “Whitewash,” a book about glyphosate and what it describes as “a growing body of evidence … tying the chemical to cancers and a host of other health threats.” The book has gone on to win honors including the top book award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

But internal Monsanto documents show that as the release of “Whitewash” approached, the company sought to “minimize media coverage and publicity of this book” and to “minimize the use of the book as a credible reference.” The company’s multi-pronged campaign that ensued — part of an effort dubbed “Project Spruce” — included discussion of paying for placement of select blog posts or websites following Google searches of “Monsanto Glyphosate Carey Gillam,” and instructing third parties to post reviews of Gillam’s book.

The documents, which covered the years 2015-2017, also show the company routinely complained to Gillam’s editors at Reuters and other media outlets. Gillam said the company’s efforts to discredit her continued even after she left the news service in 2015. Writing in the Guardian last month, Gillam said, “Monsanto affiliates have repeatedly harassed editors at publications that carry my stories, and hosts of webinars and conferences featuring my work have been pressured to exclude me from participation.”

Monsanto records released in March also show the company investigated the singer Neil Young’s social media activity and music. The aging rocker and environmentalist in 2015 released “The Monsanto Years,” a studio album that sharply criticized the company and its “poison-ready” genetically modified seeds, as well as a mini-documentary targeting the corporation.

The documents add to other revelations about Monsanto’s aggressive PR strategy.

In May, Bayer was forced to admit that Monsanto and a contracted PR firm had gathered nonpublic information targeting journalists, politicians and others as part of a campaign to influence the public debate across Europe on pesticides and genetically modified products. In the wake of the revelations, Bayer ended its PR collaboration with St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard, but continues to work with the firm on marketing projects.

PR or propaganda?

Some say the internet-age strategies mark a significant departure from the traditionally accepted PR playbook — if they can still be considered PR.

“As a society, we need to be vigilant about where that line between PR and propaganda is,” said Colin Doty, a professor who teaches communication at California Lutheran University and researches misinformation in the digital age. “I don’t know (that) it’s for me to say where those ethical lines are, but I think there are people who say there’s a line there, and this either crosses it or comes perilously close.”

He said attempting to exert control over search results, in particular, is different than the widely used role of corporate PR to “create brand awareness and brand likability.” The practice goes “an extra step,” approaching “manipulating behavior that some people might consider dishonest,” he said.

“That is trying to control the consumer’s ability to get at the truth for themselves,” Doty said. “It’s one thing to put information into the marketplace and say, ‘Hey, my product is good.’ It’s another to try to suppress information in the marketplace.”

To Doty, it marks a troubling shift that could become a common tactic used by businesses or moneyed interests — if that isn’t the case already on the wild frontier of online information.

“That’s what’s dangerous about this smelling like PR,” said Doty. “In the end they can say, ‘We’re just doing PR. Everybody does PR.’”

It’s about the science

The basis for the glyphosate lawsuits of recent years is a 2015 conclusion that “there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity” linking the chemical to lymphoma, according to a report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Bayer, just like Monsanto before it, vehemently defends glyphosate’s safety, touting its decadeslong track record of use and scientific approval. Indeed, since the IARC’s 2015 warning about glyphosate, the chemical was deemed unlikely to be a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and a combined meeting of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization with the separate WHO group that examines pesticide residues.

Beyond the product, they also defend the associated company actions that have drawn some criticism as litigation unfolds.

“None of the documents cherry-picked by plaintiffs’ lawyers and their surrogates contradict the findings of the extensive body of science and conclusions of leading health regulators that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” Bayer said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch. “Instead, they show that Monsanto’s activities were intended to ensure there was a fair, accurate and science-based dialogue about the company and its products in response to significant misinformation, including using common online tools that many companies and organizations use to communicate with key audiences.

“It is also important to see many of the criticisms of the company for what they are: attempts to mischaracterize the company’s engagement in a robust scientific debate by people who disagree with our point-of-view,” the company added. “We take the safety of our products and our reputation very seriously and work to ensure that everyone — from regulators to customers to other stakeholders — has accurate and balanced information to make decisions about our products.”

Similar defenses of the company’s strategies are echoed throughout the internal documents that have been released in the litigation.

“There are a lot of misleading claims out there about us and what we do, and we won’t apologize for trying to change them or correct them,” a Monsanto communications employee wrote in one of the documents.

As the glyphosate lawsuits grind on, additional details may emerge about Monsanto’s internal strategies used to combat criticism.

For instance, legal teams for plaintiffs in the litigation suggested that more information could await about how the company got “their talking points widely distributed,” said Leemon McHenry, a consultant for Baum Hedlund. “In the next set of documents that we hope to have declassified there will be more revelations about how this is done.”

Monsanto through the years

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