Be careful from where you get your information about food.
Did you know there are now five times as many PR professionals as journalists? Mainstream media is in decline, and balanced, unbiased and in-depth reporting is hard to find. At the same time, large corporations are handing big bucks to PR companies to ‘rewrite’ the story of industrial agriculture and sustainable food production.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
An interesting new report from Friends of the Earth (1) investigates the tactics routinely employed by industrial livestock producers and biotech, agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies. “Spinning food” exposes how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to promote industry messages. Presenting ad copy as scientific fact is deliberately designed to sway public opinion and affect policy decisions.
We need to know these strategies so we can learn how to recognise a good ‘spin’ when we see one. These sectors are desperately trying to hang on to their market share as demand for organic food and GMO-free products grows – and they are misleading the public with every PR tool in the book, some old, some new.
PR tactics are used in a deceitful and manipulative way to promote corporate interests, and to deflect concerns about intensive industrial agriculture, thereby stalling regulation. The general public, without realising, is being hoodwinked on a grand scale by ‘greenwashed’ lies masquerading as scientific fact.
It’s greenwashing when a company or organisation spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact.
Here is a summary of some of the favourite tactics used as outlined in the FoE report (direct quotes are in italics):
- “Deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry of PR professionals to promote their messages with consumers and the media.”
‘Spin’ is presented as ‘fact’ and the aim is to ‘re-educate’ consumers about the impacts of industrial agriculture (e.g. antibiotic overuse or the harms of toxic chemicals) while deliberately undermining the public’s confidence in the benefits of sustainable food systems, and their ability to influence their own health.
- “Targeting female audiences by trying to co-opt female bloggers, elevating females spokespeople and promoting messages to disparage organic mums as elitist bullies.”
Anyone who voices concern is portrayed as a neurotic hypochondriac (ie not only bad, but mad as well!), or is seen as an advocate of the nanny state.
- “Infiltrating social media and creating seemingly independent social media engagement platforms that are in fact run by industry PR firms.”
Increasingly, social media is being used to mislead consumers without disclosure of true information sources.
- “Attacking the credibility of scientists, advocates, consumers and journalists who raise concerns about industrial food production methods and impacts.”
Personal attacks on those who offer a different view distracts from the original argument and, typically, there is no serious discussion of the science. Opponents are branded ‘anti-science’ and ‘charlatans’.
- “Partnering with prominent media venues on ‘native advertising’ disguised as real news content that promotes industry messages.”
I recently listened to an interview (Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4) with a prominent media executive who stated quite seriously that native advertising provided people with ‘informed choice’. The presenter did not think to ask her just WHOSE choices were being selected and presented to the ‘lucky’ audience.
- “Using third-party allies to foster an echo chamber of carefully crafted talking points to frame the story of food in favour of chemical intensive industrial food production.”
Seemingly independent individuals or groups such as advisory boards are paid by industry to provide opinion pieces on their own websites or to mainstream media. This is a supremely effective way of manipulating public opinion and policymakers, particularly if the individuals hold positions of authority and influence.
Recognising the various ‘spincycles’ and ‘greenwashing’ that currently permeate agriculture, healthcare and education via the media is a crucial first step in our understanding of complex competing interests. If you think about it, all of the above strategies have one aim in common: to convey the message that no change is necessary. ‘Don’t be awkward, just do nothing and keep spraying the pesticides, drinking the fizzies, taking the drugs – we need to keep our shareholders happy. And by the way, it’s not our fault if there are consequences…’
You can find out more about the language and tactics of corporate spin and how to counter it effectively, by visiting www.cokespeak.org.
(1) “Spinning food. How food industry front groups and covert communications are shaping the story of food.” Hamerschlag K, Lappé A, Malkan S, Friends of the Earth 2015