THE BLOG

PR Firm Attacks Organic Food, Then Pitches Itself to Organic Companies

03/14/2016 05:49 pm ET
  • Stacy Malkan Co-director, U.S. Right to Know; author, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry"
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

News that Ketchum Inc., the public relations firm leading the charge to promote chemical-dependent GMO agriculture, is launching a new "specialty group" to capture a slice of the growing organic food market caught many food industry players by surprise last week. Ketchum's new branch, called "Cultivate," is pitching itself to "help purpose-driven brands with a natural, organic, and sustainable focus."

The news comes as Ketchum remains a key player in PR efforts to dampen demand for organic foods, spinning messages that tell consumers organics are over-priced and over-hyped.

In 2013, Monsanto hired Ketchum's parent company, Omnicom, to "reshape" its reputation amid fierce opposition to GMOs, according to the Holmes Report. Ketchum now works closely with Monsanto and the agrichemical industry on its massively funded PR efforts to promote genetically engineered food and crops, stop GMO labeling, downplay concerns about pesticides, counteract consumer advocates and convince consumers that organic food is no different from conventional food.

For example, Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website, funded by Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and BASF. On queries about organic food, Ketchum's website claims that consumers pay a "hefty premium" for organic food that is no better than conventionally-grown food, contains pesticide residues, has a higher risk of bacterial contamination, and is really just a marketing program.

GMO Answers has been an effective marketing program for the agrichemical industry. The site was shortlisted for a Clio advertising award in 2014 for "crisis management and issue management," and Ketchum bragged in a video about the website's success in spinning media coverage of GMOs.

A closer look at Ketchum's past and current activities turns up more reasons that purpose-driven organic and natural food companies might want to steer clear of Ketchum's "Cultivate" branch.

Emails from the late 1990s indicate that Ketchum was involved in espionage against nonprofit groups that were raising concerns about GMOs.

More recently, Ketchum promoted Russia's interests in the U.S. for nine years. The firm dropped Russia as a client in 2015, but picked up another controversial international PR job: The Honduran government, under fire from a multi-million-dollar corruption scandal, has hired Ketchum to promote economic development and investment in Honduras.

When it comes to organic food and the food movement, Ketchum wants to play both sides of the issue.

In a recent Washington Post column, Tamar Haspel used Ketchum as a source to support her thesis that there isn't much of a food movement. Haspel wrote:

The public relations firm Ketchum... has tried to pinpoint the kind of consumer we think of as part of the food movement: someone who regularly and publicly recommends or critiques foods or agricultural practices. The firm came up with a definition using those criteria and found that, in 2015, 14 percent of the population met them, up from 11 percent two years earlier.

The Ketchum study indicates that food concerns among consumers are rising, something just about everyone I've spoken to believes to be true. But hard data on the foods that people actually buy indicate that old habits die hard. Take organic foods. Sales growth has outpaced the rest of the market for many years, but organics still account for only five percent of the total market.

The PR Week story announcing Ketchum's new specialty group "Cultivate" had a different spin on the food movement and Ketchum's consumer data:

In its global Food 2020 study Ketchum found that food evangelists have increased 10 percent in just two years and can no longer be considered a small group of influencers.

The natural organic food sector is expected to become a $226 billion industry by 2018, according to Mintel's Report on Organic Food and Beverage Shoppers.

That kind of double talk raises the question: Is it a conflict of interest for Ketchum -- which has worked to undermine consumer advocates and the organic foods industry -- to represent organic companies? We think the answer is yes, and that it would be unwise for organic companies to hire the PR firm behind GMO Answers.

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