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Editor’s Note:Last month, our Thinking Outside the Box column discussed the background of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) and the early efforts by the group to inform consumers about the benefits of biotechnology. This month we delve into the tactics scheduled for this year and which audiences will be targeted.

Heading up Washington, D.C.-based CBI is Linda Thrane, longtime Cargill public affairs expert. Thrane was only on the job a few months when this interview was conducted at her home in Independence, Minn. She speaks candidly about what CBI hopes to accomplish for its member companies (Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and Aventis), and her marketing strategies to get consumers to think more favorably about biotechnology and its immense possibilities for doing good in the world.

AM: What is the general plan to "market" the benefits of biotechnology from your organization during 2001. And who is your audience?

We need to reach the gatekeeper. This is the woman with two to three kids who basically controls the family’s food-purchasing dollar. She’s the one who’s interested in food quality as well as the cost of food. We’re also going to build a public relations program of outreach to third-party influencers such as ag communications groups, other ag businesses, the food industry, academia and the medical industry.

AM: What about tactics?

We’re going to get information out quickly - at the early stage. We want people to understand what the issues mean to them and give them the tools to come to their own conclusions. We also want to give industry organizations and other partners information and let them disseminate it to their audiences and develop their own tools.

AM: When you mentioned doctors as one example, what are some of the tactics you’re thinking about?

That’s a good question because it’s an important audience, and we’re realizing from the questions and responses we’re getting that we’ve got to find a way to get information to them. I think we’re at the very early stages just trying to understand. But we know we need a basic information package on the ABCs of biotechnology that all kinds of nonagricultural organizations can use.

AM: What about your Web site?

We’ve built and we’re trying to just make that better and better and more organized so that when people are interested in the latest information out there about environmental issues or food safe, we have a basic information package.

AM: How do you handle media calls?

This goes to what differentiates the council from other organizations. My job is to speak to the issues that are raised by the public about the monarch butterfly or the StarLink issue. I try to tell the media who’s done the research work and who understands the real scientific and health side of it. I’m more of a conduit than a resource in that regard.

So far most of my media relations work has been trying to help folks on what might be of interest to their audience. We’ve done four tracking surveys of the general public and opinion leaders around the kind of specific issues raised regarding producing food for a growing world - what people know today, what they don’t know and what they need to know - to develop information and deploy it going forward.

AM: Any interesting results from those tracking studies?

Yes. They’re interesting results. Some of the information won’t be surprising to you as a consumer. We had our baseline in March when we did our first tracking poll. We know that the family shopper in the United States - the one I mentioned earlier that we have to reach - is split into three groups. About one-third support biotechnology, about one-third are concerned and one-third are undecided. That’s another difference between consumers here and in Europe. In Europe, there’s really no gray area. You either like biotechnology or you don’t. It’s more of a gray area in the United States. We need to get good information to people who haven’t made up their minds so they come to their own conclusion that biotechnology offers them real benefits. We’re finding as information levels drop, so does the support for biotechnology.

AM: What else does the research tell you?

People do respond strongly to the positive messages about biotechnology, especially when they’re informed that biotechnology has been used for years in medicine and it’s made better medicine, such as insulin. And so this message really resonates. In November nearly three-fourths of the general public polled responded positively that biotech was used to develop new medicines. People aren’t as informed about farming techniques, so when you say, "Biotechnology will allow us to develop healthier foods such as food higher in nutrients," 54 percent agreeÜ But when you say, "Biotechnology reduces the need for chemical pesticides," we’re down to 50 percent agreement. It doesn’t mean they won’t support the idea, it’s just that they understand less about farm applications.

We have to start telling them about how good biotechnology is for the environment. Then you’re going to see that support just go boom, boom, boom, boom - right up to where it is on medicine because people are very much aware of the positive things biotechnology means in medicines.

AM: That’s because it hits them more on a day-to-day basis when you talk about medicines helping them.

Right. They aren’t close to the farmer. Biotechnology may or may not be good to the farmer. That really doesn’t matter to them. But, what does it mean for my family and me?

AM: What are you either planning or doing right now from a public relations standpoint? Are you working with marketing communications agencies?

Public relations and advertising work is being done by BSMG Worldwide. They’re a global agency, and we’re working closely with the Washington and Chicago offices. New York is doing a lot of our advertising work.

AM: Have any PR-executed tactics been implemented?

We’re really aiming at moms. That’s not rocket science. We’ve done some media briefings with food and women’s magazines in New York. Those kinds of efforts are intended to be substantive and to put the editors and reporters in contact with good sources.

AM: So the consumer is your customer?

It’s the shopper this year. One reason is because the rest of the industry is telling us that. What are we doing to help her? If we’re not fighting for her mind, heart and soul right now, what are we doing?

AM: Do you have the resources to get this done?

I sure hope so. We have the three- to five-year commitment, and the board (comprised of Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer and Aventis) has basically committed $30 million to $50 million a year during that period. People go "wow," but if you were to go to one major cereal company, it can spend that much on one product alone. So we’ve really got to make what we have work, and face-to-face public relations efforts are very important.

AM: What’s been your biggest surprise so far?

I think it’s probably that you can take a group of companies which are in so many ways fierce competitors and also active in the traditional crop input area - knowing they won’t see some payback in biotechnology for quite a while - and find a common belief in this technology to the point that they’re willing to hang together. They support the Council for Biotechnology Information and are willing to make this major investment. If I think too much about that, I get kind of weak-kneed. But there’s a real commitment to make it work.

AM: There are those who aren’t well informed who might argue that being in a position like you are in, with all of the negative publicity, starts you from a position of weakness.

We cannot underestimate the fact that this technology is hanging in the balance right now. We’ve got to do this. The weakness is in ignorance, like I said before, and to me that’s what I’m all about from an issue standpoint. I’ve spent my career, at times, in arm-to-arm combat getting positions known and accepted. So I accept this new challenge.

AM: One more question. In the next three to five years, if there’s one thing you want to accomplish, what is it?

To prove that biotechnology is safe for the world, and to make the world safe for biotechnology. It’s good for the environment and for our health, and it will feed future generations better. That’s pretty mind-boggling, and we’re going to get the message out. AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.

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