Jeffrey Tomich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Planting Cyber Seeds: Monsanto Works to Join the Online Conversation About GMO Crops
St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- March 29, 2009 -- Earlier this month, a blogger named Brad fired a virtual salvo at Jeffrey Smith, the author of "Seeds of Deception" and one of the most vocal crusaders against genetically modified foods.
In a 600-word post, Brad questioned the credibility of an online petition on Smith's website, urging the administration of President Barack Obama to require labeling of biotech foods. He called the petition "sheer political theater" and prodded the activist for purportedly being a yogic flying instructor.
More than 30 comments followed in the next few weeks. On one level, the exchange was just another online debate about GMOs. But this one was notable because of who initiated and hosted it: Monsanto Co.
For years, environmental and food activists have made good use of YouTube video and Facebook to skewer Monsanto in the blogosphere. Now, the biotech giant is turning the tables.
The company's blog, Monsanto According to Monsanto, made its debut Feb. 10, and it is the company's latest tool to engage critics on hot-button issues such as food labeling. The title spoofs a documentary by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin that has been viewed more than 47,000 times on YouTube.
Beside the blog, Monsanto has hired a full-time social media specialist, Kathleen Manning. It has almost 600 followers on the Web-based short messaging system Twitter, started a YouTube channel and launched a Facebook page. The company is also developing a version of its website for cell phones and Blackberries and is creating MonsantoTV.
Glynn Young, a Monsanto manager in his second stint with the company, is heading the effort. Before rejoining the company in 2004, Young, 57, worked for St. Louis Public Schools, where he had a trial by fire in crisis management earlier this decade after the district slashed its budget, cut staff and closed schools.
Monsanto's presence on the Web has evolved during the last few years. But only last year did the company decide to delve into social media as it witnessed the upheaval of traditional media and realized that its existing outreach vehicle -- news releases -- wasn't enough.
"We asked ourselves, 'Is this a space we should be participating in?' The answer was 'yes,'" Young said.
While some consumer companies have used blogs and Twitter to promote their products, Monsanto views social media as a forum to discuss key issues with critics, investors and customers.
"There was this big conversation going on (on the Internet), and we weren't a part of it," said John Combest, a manager in public affairs at Monsanto and one of the bloggers.
There was one particular instance that opened the company's eyes to the power of social media. It happened at last summer's Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, when the company learned, much to its surprise, that some Wall Street analysts had been following an agronomist's blog that chronicled the progress of Monsanto's "Golden Acre" plot, which showcases some of its crops under development.
But just Google the company's name and it quickly becomes obvious that blogs and social media haven't been kind to Monsanto, based in Creve Coeur.
Monsanto has been in the cross hairs of social activists for decades, going back to its days as a maker of Agent Orange and PCBs. That didn't change with the company's new focus on biotech and agriculture.
A decade ago, activists expressed themselves by torching fields of genetically modified crops and throwing tofu cream pies at Monsanto's chairman. These days, activists are challenging the company through the use of YouTube videos and countless blogs that demonize GMOs.
Facebook, the social networking site, is full of anti-Monsanto groups, including one, Millions Against Monsanto, with more than 22,000 members. Another group's avatar depicts CEO Hugh Grant with a handful of soybeans. Below the words: "No Food Shall Be Grown That We Don't Own." It seems there's a way to revile the company in any language.
Nora Ganim Barnes has studied corporate use of social media at the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and urges companies to not let online criticism go unchallenged.
"We advise companies to listen to what's being said about them in social media and get into social media to reply," she said.
One example of a company that effectively did that is PC maker Dell Corp. Dell-bashing escalated a few years ago, giving rise to the term "Dell Hell." When the company finally started its own blog, it became the forum of choice for critics.
Monsanto similarly appears to be trying to steer discussion about critical issues to its blog so it's easier to influence the debate, Barnes said.
"Now they're controlling the posts, they're answering the questions, they're directing them to different places within Monsanto and maybe another site," she said. "They've taken control of the situation."
The company and its critics agreed on one thing: Food is an emotional issue. Knowing that, Monsanto hopes using social media will help put a human face on the company and connect with people who might perceive it as a monolith trying to dominate global agriculture.
Bonnie Azab Powell, a food politics journalist in California and co-founder and editor of The Ethicurian (www.ethicurean.com), a three-year-old blog about food, sees that as a challenge.
"I admire their effort and I'm sure they have a lot of money to spend," she said. But "the hostility toward the company is very real, and it's not going to be corrected by investing heavily in social media."
There are six dedicated bloggers at Monsanto. But any employee is allowed -- even encouraged -- to participate. A frequent contributor is Daniel Goldstein, a pediatrician who works as Monsanto's senior scientist in residence.
The "official" bloggers go by their first names and are represented by personalized South Park avatars. That decision, Young said, "engendered a lot of discussion at levels above me."
Comments on the blog (blog.monsantoblog.com) are patrolled and answered, but they'll be permitted to stand unless they contain profanity or personal attacks. That's true even if they criticize the company, Young said.
"As long as it's trying to engage in a civil way, that's fine," he said. "But we're not going to let unsubstantiated vitriol go unchallenged."
Bloggers also watch what is said about the company on other agriculture and biotech-themed blogs, such as Biofortified.org.
Just last week, Monsanto made a splash at OpEdNews.com. The company cross-posted three of its blog posts on the liberal website. Also last week, the site's editor and publisher, Robb Kall, posted a poll for readers asking them if the company should be allowed to cross-post its blog entries.
"One could argue that getting them into a conversation is a good thing," he wrote. "Or one can argue that they have billions to promote their message and OEN should not help them sell their propaganda." As of Friday, 420 readers had responded; 236 of them voted against letting Monsanto post articles on the site.
To be sure, Monsanto acknowledges it is still feeling its way around in the world of Web 2.0. "It's a sea change for us," Young said. "We're kind of going at this in baby steps."
In the end, the company knows it might not win over its critics. But it will continue to engage them.
"We're not asking people to love us," Young said. "And we don't mind critics, but we'd like more informed critics."
Author: Jeffrey Tomich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch