GMO Answers: A website walk-through with tips from Spock, Kirk and Aristotle

GMO Answers: A website walk-through with tips from Spock, Kirk and Aristotle

Biotech companies have teamed together to launch a website answering consumer questions about GMOs. While the timing is good, the strategy gives the rest of us a chance to think about the ways we connect with consumers through reputation, logic and emotion.

Brands consumers trust, like General Mills and Kellogg’s, have had little information to share with the public on their websites about their use (or not) of genetically modified organisms.

With GMO labeling frequently featured in national and state-level news this year, we suggested in our latest Eco Pulse™ that it might be time to go on the offensive, perhaps with a collaborative communications initiative sponsored by manufacturers and pro-GMO groups like the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization.

Instead, biotech companies – the ones that actually engineer and produce genetically modified seeds – have recently taken up the communications cause. In July, the Council for Biotechnology Information launched the website GMO Answers to answer consumer questions about the technology. The CBI includes such big names as BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.

Critics have said the website’s effort to bring about a common understanding will fail because there is so much conflicting research.

But as a former rhetoric teacher at the University of Tennessee, I’m pointing to a different reason that GMO Answers won’t be able to create understanding between GMO creators and consumers: Facts don’t fight fear or anger.

Rhetoric 101 for sustainability

As Aristotle tells us, there are three basic appeals you can make to your audience in persuasive communications:

  • Highlight your own reputation, character or qualifications (ethos, in teacher-talk)
  • Argue with logic and facts (logos)
  • Target the audience’s emotions (pathos)

GMO Answers relies totally on scientific logic and the experts’ professional qualifications.

It’s easy to assume that logic should untangle a messy, misunderstood topic like GMOs – and that science will be trusted by the public. That might be the case if the public were made up of Vulcans, like the ever-logical Spock from “Star Trek.”

With all that in mind, let’s take a walk through the website together. It offers some intriguing insights for food brands, manufacturers and biotech companies involved in GMO production, as well as anyone facing crisis communications, crashed reputations or a clash of sciences.

A tour through GMO Answers

There are two main elements to the site:

  1. Explore the Basics: CBI addresses broad topics like “GMOs and Health,” “History of Crop Modification,” and “GMOs and the Future of Agriculture.” But the rich photography and easy-to-read sliders don’t make up for the fact that a lot of concerned consumers don’t really care about those last two categories, or a lot of the details found in the other three categories on the page. (Although I found them to hold the site’s most interesting nuggets.)
  2. Q&A: Viewers can submit their questions, and an expert in an applicable field will answer it. After a month, there were 101 questions in the list.

Experts are chosen from academia, trade organizations, scientific organizations, government agencies and the sponsor companies. Their answers tend to be several (or more) meaty paragraphs, filled with thoroughly defined scientific words and references to scientific method. There are often multiple links to sources outside this site. Some experts are better than others at directly answering the question.

If you scroll down, you’ll see viewers’ comments on the expert answer. They’re not pretty.

The audience is definitely not Vulcan

Sampling the submitted questions and comments on the expert answers, the active audience seems to be composed of a super-anti-GMO type and a concerned parent type. The latter asks sincere, educated questions, but with a doubtful tone, as if they don’t really expect to get an answer.

Reading the comments (mostly super-anti-GMO types) makes me envision a stately Great Dane surrounded by a pack of angry Chihuahuas (yes, I just jumped from Star Trek to dogs). I am not belittling legitimate confusion and concern (disclaimer: this article does not condone any one point of view). But the people who are moved to comment are moved because they’re upset. The answers are so measured and level and factual – and big and impersonal.

Your communications strategy has to appeal to the audience through its existing values. Play by the same rules – not like you’re chess players up against a rugby team, each following your own set. If the audience is angry, or suspicious, or even excited, logic and professionalism aren’t going to stand up against emotions.

That’s especially true if the logic and expert answers are made available by a corporation with a poor reputation with consumers (Monsanto is the only company I found referenced in user comments).

Before you bring in the experts, some level of trust needs to already exist. CBI knows that trust is an issue. One answer begins: “This question about trust has been posed by several people. I guess the simplest answer is … our companies realize that corporations must earn your trust – and the only way we can do that is through making good on our commitments and our actions. It’s one of the main reasons why all of our companies are engaging in this initiative and are willing to answer the questions that people ask on the site.”

But by attempting to start a reasoned dialogue before the trust is there, you end up with vitriolic comments, suspicion that all the experts have been bought out by Monsanto, and no change.

Connect head and heart

The sponsor companies are launching other initiatives to go along with the website, but they’re going to have to take more personal and personable actions to cause any change. The experts need to be paired with communications professionals who can make the science relatable for the audience. (Think of that stellar combination of logic, confident ethos and down-home pathos that always make Spock, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy the winning team.)

Peer-reviewed science, unfortunately, just doesn’t connect with the average consumer.

There are stories embedded in the website: farmers who’ve struggled against adverse conditions; scientists saving the papaya crop from an obliterating disease; malnourished children desperately in need of Vitamin A so they won’t go blind; communities appreciative of decreased pesticide use and food waste.

But rather than presenting these as human dramas, these are presented on the site as “facts,” reinforcing a perception that Monsanto doesn’t care about people. The commenting audience has picked up on that.

Drawing out those stories, leading with them, has a much better chance of opening consumers up to actual dialogue. Life doesn’t have two sides, so real stories can help lessen the polarity in communications.

Social media isn’t the best tool for connecting head and heart

Allowing comments on answers is a nice gesture – one would think it fosters dialogue. But the absence of connection and reputation is a problem here, too. You’ve got to be prepared to moderate it closely (that’s no easy task) or it can get out of hand.

Here’s an example.

  • On July 18, an expert answer was posted to the question, “Have there been studies done that show GMOs do not harm our health?”
  • The first comment, anti-GMO but polite, came on July 29.
  • By July 30, the first vitriolic comment appeared.
  • A month later, there were 30 comments, and the expert had not responded to them.
  • The Community Manager has made short blanket statements a few times and provided a link to some studies; that was followed by a comment with a list of studies contradicting the expert answer – a list that is five screen-frames-long on my laptop.
  • Posts keep getting angrier as they respond to their predecessors.

An average reaction

Of course, I don’t know what non-commenting readers are thinking. But, at best, the average person may come away from the site having learned that only eight GM crops are actually available commercially in the U.S.; one of those, for some reason, is squash; and 379 million pounds less pesticide was applied in the U.S. between 1996 and 2009 thanks to GMOs.

They might also learn a lot of iffy science thanks to the fact that protestors have been so vocal and posted more links to their websites and sources than the experts have to theirs.

The average consumer could come away shaking their heads at the spin or thankful someone is talking about the topic. But their opinion likely won’t shift.

They may also wonder how the experts’ assurances apply to their families, to the corn cereals they feed their kids, and the soy milk they use since their child is lactose intolerant. The companies closer to the consumers aren’t off the hook. They could be the ones to instill an inspiring ethos, Captain Kirk style.

While the sponsors’ direction toward transparency and trust is laudable, this website may need to work as a base to a broader coalition with presently trusted brands and nonprofit/science organizations.


Posted on

September 5, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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