Protesters super glued to a PR agency’s doors, activists out in the Sussex countryside at the crack of dawn and an MP being bundled into the back of a police van. It must be 2000 all over again, surely?
Of course, back then it was all about ‘Frankenstein food’ and activists in white robes, often in Scream masks, ripping up trials of genetically modified crops. And New Labour suddenly finding its honeymoon period was well and truly up, as almost every newspaper in the land turned on it and railed against GMOs.
But I realised I hadn’t gone back in time when I saw people glued to the doors of Bell Pottinger’s offices in Holborn this month. They were there protesting against fracking. And they were there to accuse the agency – which represents shale gas extractor Cuadrilla - of lying about the risks involved, as well as to secure some valuable media coverage.
I worked at Bell Pottinger in the early Noughties when a similar group of protesters stormed their offices to protest about GMOs. They walked straight up to my desk and poured a huge bag of soya beans over it. Then they accused me of lying about GM food, working for “the evil Monsanto” and putting people’s lives at risk.
It was all a bit of a shock to the system for a bloke who thought he was simply promoting the benefits of biotechnology for a client and was virtually the same age as the twenty-something protesters.
Hadn’t these people read any of the science or facts about biotechnology? Didn’t they know or understand that GM crops had been introduced in the US already, with farmers embracing Monsanto’s technology and consumers barely even batting an eyelid?
Surely, if we sat down together, calmly, and had a rational discussion, they’d come round. They’d see that they were mistaken. We’d persuade them that they had simply got the wrong end of the stick. In short, we’d prove to them that GMOs were safe.
Unfortunately, as I discovered, life’s not like that. Because, when it comes to new technology, there’s no rational or irrational. There’s just how people feel. Which of course can lead to scientists tearing their hair out and fact-obsessed PRs repeating the same information, over and over again, in the hope of winning their argument.
But those angry protesters standing at my desk didn’t like the sound of GM food. It sounded weird, dangerous and unnecessary. And Joe Public agreed, giving GMOs the thumbs down in droves. Quickly followed by a very nervous New Labour, whose honeymoon period suddenly ended with it being attacked left, right and centre over GM crops. No wonder they swiftly bowed to demands for a moratorium on the technology.
So why did it all go so wrong? And are there any lessons the shale gas industry can learn from the GMO debacle? In my view, yes, plenty. But for now, here are my top five:
1. Science rarely wins hearts and minds – but you do need to explain it
Human beings are emotional. We’re not computers that can be reprogrammed. You can’t type in a new code and get us to think differently. That’s why, when I offered up PhD molecular biologists or Harvard and MIT educated biotechnologists to explain the science behind GMOs, it fell on deaf ears.
For a start, if it takes longer than 30 seconds to explain the science, no one’s listening. We want headlines, not detail. We want facts, but not too many. And even then, science – on its own – rarely wins the day.
Yes the industry needs to explain the science and the technology behind fracking. That’s important, because without it, urban myths will proliferate quickly.
I spent hours telling journalists that fish genes weren’t being spliced with tomatoes to produce a ‘mutant version’ that was frost resistant and in the shops already. But by that time, the story had taken on a life of its own and the myth had become a reality.
So a shorthand way of explaining the science/technology behind fracking is vital. I can guarantee 9 out of 10 media interviews will begin with “Before we start, can I just ask you: what exactly is fracking?”
Talk for more than 10 seconds and you’ll start to lose people. Talk for more than 30 and you’ll be interrupted with “Yes, but there’s a lot of controversy about it, isn’t there?”
Get the explanation right from the outset – and then stick to it.
2. People believe people – so who will be the human face of fracking?
We tend to distrust new technology. How can we be sure it’s safe? What if something goes wrong? Who should I believe?
Well, in the case of GMOs, it was celebrity chefs. Then it was mums. No one believed the scientists in white coats at plant breeding centres. Nor did they believe company executives in suits extolling the benefits of GM crops on Newsnight. And they definitely didn’t believe GM farmers in the US, because, well, they were American.
No, the British public was more likely to trust what a celebrity chef said about GM food. Quickly followed by famous mums – from columnists to TV personalities – and then, eventually, just other mums chatting on sites like mumsnet.com
There was no real face to GMOs in the UK, or when there was, it wasn’t the right one. So the fracking industry needs a face and a voice. Someone to go into bat for it on TV and radio (yes they still matter, even in the digital age) and argue its case. And it also needs third party endorsement from people we recognise, rate and trust, who believe in the benefits and safety of shale gas extraction.
If not, it’s a matter of time before a popular, media friendly ‘celeb’ critic takes centre stage and others follow. Witness the anti-GM voices of Zac Goldsmith, Raymond Blanc, Antony Worral Thompson, Gary Rhodes – the list never stopped growing once it got started.
3. The message has to be clear and compelling
Why do we need fracking? Why should I support it? What’s in it for me?
All questions we never really cracked with GMOs. We argued GM crops needed less herbicide to kill the weeds and so were better for the environment. No one cared and most people didn’t know what herbicide was anyway. We said it would help UK farming and farmers would increase their yield. Again, a muted, unconvinced response. Then we said GM crops could grow in drought conditions and offer a huge boost to third world countries. By that time, of course, no one was listening.
If the industry wants people to support fracking and get behind it, it is going to have to have a single, clear and compelling message that answers the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question. And it will need to repeat that over and over again, just to get to first base in the comms battle ahead.
Will fracking cut our fuel bills? Will it mean we’re less dependent on oil from the Middle East or gas from Russia? Will it create thousands of jobs for British workers? Will it finally mean an end to the risk of the lights going out? Or will it poison ground water, release dangerous chemicals into the air and cause people to suffer sensory, respiratory and neurological illnesses?
I’m not sure I really know. Do you?
4. Seeing is believing – or a start at least
After 18 months of relentless anti-GM coverage, we advised Monsanto to take a group of journalists out into a field and show them some GM crop trials. Not rocket science I admit, but I was astonished that virtually none of them had seen a GM plant before. They’d written endless column inches, furious op-eds and broadcast hours of angry debate about something they’d never actually seen or touched.
Some were genuinely surprised and impressed at how much less weed killer needed to be sprayed on the GM plants to kill the weeds. Others that they were identical to the non-GM variety, presumably having expected something out of The Day of the Triffids. And some were taken aback to encounter a British plant breeder working for a US conglomerate, explaining in a reassuringly, friendly Norfolk accent that he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Again, this didn’t win the day. But showing journalists what you’re doing, why you consider it safe and explaining the benefits sure beats just telling them. Ditto the general public, who need to see and hear what fracking actually is and what it involves. This is about information and education – not persuasion.
5. Engage your critics, but don’t assume you’ll win them over
We tried to win over Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a 101 other NGOs. We wanted them to understand that GM crops were safe and could offer huge benefits to farmers, especially those in developing countries. We wanted their scientists to talk to our scientists. We wanted them to see US consumers weren’t up in arms and that Monsanto really wasn’t the Devil incarnate.
It was a hiding to nothing. They didn’t buy any of it. They just saw a big US company trying to introduce GM crops by the back door, while ignoring public sentiment. Plus the offer to meet was seen as nothing more than a PR move by a company on the back foot, keen to placate its critics.
The shale gas industry will need to put its case to environmental groups. It will need to talk to them, involve them, address their concerns and be seen to be doing so. But it shouldn’t necessarily expect to win them over. NGOs don’t exist to support big business, but they do occasionally partner with them and, often, those partnerships succeed - when built on mutual trust and respect. So a charm offensive, no. A genuine and open dialogue, yes. But even then, don’t expect opposition to miraculously melt into support. It rarely does.
Finally, a word about lies. PR agencies are hired to communicate their client's position. When everything they say can be recorded, replayed and dissected over and over again – lying is a quick way to go out of business.
Ironically, less weed killer was sprayed on GM plants than their non-GM equivalents. And this year, Monsanto did indeed produce its first commercial drought tolerant crop.
All we can do as communicators is communicate. But to succeed, we need to get clients to understand and acknowledge why people feel the way they do, while acknowledging and addressing those concerns.
What you say and how you say it is just half the battle. What you stand for and how you behave is the other.
Alex Woolfall is an independent consultant and a former head of crisis and issues management for Bell Pottinger, Weber Shandwick and Hill & Knowlton.