Best Public Relations Money Can Buy

 Cross-posted from Center for Food Safety




What are front groups?


In response to heightened criticism over the past few years, the food industry has stepped  up its public relations efforts to reassure the media, the public, and policymakers that our food system is healthy and safe. One increasingly common way industry attempts to shape the public discourse is by forming a group that appears to benefit the public. Often these groups claim to represent farmers or consumers or some other sympathetic constituency when in fact they are funded by powerful industry players. Some long-standing front groups have a broad agenda, such as pushing industry-friendly science. Others form just to lobby or conduct public relations on a specific policy for a limited time and then disappear. It is critical to understand who these groups are and how they operate. Their tactics are designed to hide their true agenda and funders. For example, representatives of front groups often write op-eds or appear as experts without disclosing the conflict of interest.


What is the difference between trade groups and front groups?


Food companies hire lobbyists to push for legislation in their favor and oppose laws that hurt their interests. Trade groups are formal lobbying organizations through which food companies pool their resources to be more powerful. An example of a food industry trade group is the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, which represents the beef industry. Each major animal product (pork, chicken, eggs, dairy) is represented by its own trade group. Likewise, the soft drink industry is represented by the American Beverage Association, while the Grocery Manufacturers Association represents both food and beverage makers such as General Mills, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods.


While trade groups are generally up front about who they represent, front groups are not. Front groups often have deceptive-sounding names and attempt to create a positive public impression that hides their funders’ economic motives. Also, most front groups engage mainly in public relations campaigns as opposed to lobbying.


Why does industry form front groups?


Several motivators explain the rise of front groups in recent years. Most branded food companies (such as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola) have millions of dollars invested in their public image and so would rather not engage in the under-handed and mean-spirited tactics that some front groups utilize. It’s much safer to give money to front groups to let them do the dirty work while the corporate brand image remains clean. Also, the largest players in the food industry know that “Big Ag” and “Big Food” have become synonymous with bad, so they are no longer credible messengers. It’s better to create a front group that claims to represent farmers or consumers, two groups that are more sympathetic to the public. Similarly, industry knows that it has little credibility when it comes to complicated matters such as science. Years ago, the Tobacco Institute became notorious as the public relations arm of the tobacco industry— its aim to distort the science around smoking and health. This tactic effectively delayed public policy on tobacco for decades. The food industry’s current effort to distort science is similar, but somewhat more subtle, operating through less obvious front groups.


What are common front group tactics?


The main goal of any front group is to control the public discourse. Front groups are created in direct response to criticism being leveled at a sector of the food industry. Instead of fixing the myriad problems they’ve created, the food industry’s response is to change the way these problems are talked about, to downplay them, to discredit critics, and otherwise make the problems disappear from the public’s eye.


How do front groups accomplish this goal? The most valuable currency for any front group is propaganda and disinformation. Specific tactics include:


ASTROTURFING (FAKE GRASSROOTS): pretending your group represents the little guy, usually farmers, small business owners, or consumers. The idea is to make the public feel like the group is on their side and their interests are under attack by government and the elite.


SHOOTING THE MESSENGER: discrediting critics often by mocking them, calling them names like “food police” and “extremists” and otherwise marginalizing them.


BUYING SCIENCE: paying for research, hiring scientific experts as spokespeople, placing science stories in media, all without disclosing the conflict of interest.


SCAREMONGERING: Praying on people’s fears, especially related to the economy; for example, saying a policy will result in higher food prices or job losses.


Another common tactic employed by front groups is to “debunk” common “myths” about agricultural practices or nutrition advice. Front groups will portray advocacy groups, experts, and government officials as fearmongers who don’t understand science or know the “facts.” The idea is to make the front group position appear sane and reasoned, while making opponents sound irrational and even conspiratorial.


A similar theme in front group discourse is to portray opponents as antidemocratic and anti-consumer. Often front groups will use hyperbolic language to describe policy ideas as threats to core American rights such as freedom. Such tactics exploit many American consumers’ fears and detract from the actual issue under discussion. Each of these tactics is then deployed in a massive media campaign, through paid advertisements, media coverage, published research, op-ed articles, TV appearances, social media, etc. The idea is to distract attention from the substance of the issue (because industry often has no defense) and focus instead on anything else.


Read the full report.