Who's listening? And to whom?
Worldviews of Biotechnology Executives and Scientists
toward Public Relations and Communication
b j Altschul, APR
Master's Candidate, University of Maryland
2226 Rockwater Terrace
Richmond, VA 23233
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Paper presented to the
Science Communication Interest Group
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
August 9-12, 1995
Who's listening? And to whom?
Worldviews of Biotechnology Executives and Scientists
toward Public Relations and Communication
b j Altschul, APR
Master's candidate, University of Maryland
2226 Rockwater Terrace
Richmond, VA 23233
[log in to unmask]
Depth and personal interviews with leaders of three significant
biotechnology enterprises sought insights from executives and scientists
about their worldviews toward public relations and communication and
to what extent worldviews reflected standards of excellent and
practice. Participants viewed the function as an important part of
management. When their worldviews demonstrated openness and a
to grant ready access to information, they experienced greater
and potential support for their programs. To a limited degree they
conducted research to learn whether their publics perceived them as
to serve the public good. The study suggested that working through
differences by understanding worldviews is one way that organizations
their publics can cultivate effective long-term working
if the vines mature
if the caterpillars don't get them
if we water, sucker, feed
if we pick and preserve
thin sliced on sandwiches
chunked into salads
peeled and whole
juiced and sauced
DConnie J. Green
in Some Say Tomato
_ August 1993, Mariflo Stephens, editor
Charlottesville, VA: Northwood Press
Courtesy Mariflo Stephens
Introduction and Rationale
How prepared are proponents of modern biotechnology to discuss complex
social issues this technology raises with strategic publics? Not as
as they could be, according to the industry magazine Bio/Technology
At a meeting on food safety issues in agricultural biotechnology, for
example, a woman complained about speakers from the scientific
When they addressed her group, she said, they always started with a
disclaimer about not being prepared to discuss such issues. Yet as Jesse
Ausubel of Rockefeller University in New York noted in the same
"Public opposition to new technologies has not hinderedDbut in fact
helped stimulateDtheir development" (Hassler, 1994, p. 7).
Sociologists and scholars of risk communication often discuss these issues
and meet their counterparts from the life sciences in an increasing number
of conferences, many of which also are open to the public. Outside of
academia, though, to what extent do biotechnology industry executives
scientists engage in dialogue with non-scientists and regulators
public concerns? And for what purposes?
After all, if the debate that public opposition provokes makes the
producers of new goods and services adjust in consideration of consumer
needs, as Hassler (1984) wrote, that result is a win-win situation.
Producers are able to sell their products to consumers who have enough
confidence in, and desire for, the products to purchase them. And the
corporation has healthy relationships with stakeholders, enabling it
survive and thrive.
Calgene, Inc., for one, found that its willingness to be accessible and
open with everyone from public interest groups to government
helped stimulate an awareness of its genetically modified tomato.
subsidiary, Calgene Fresh, is the developer of the FlavrSavr_ tomato,
first whole food biotechnology product introduced in selected
stores in mid-1994 (Benoit, 1994). The company's openness also
an interest in tasting and purchasing that product upon its becoming
Calgene's experience isn't necessarily typical.
Scientists traditionally have communicated within their own community in
the quest to generate breakthrough knowledge (e.g., Lacy & Busch,
Colwell, 1994). Still, industry observers (Burrill & Lee, 1993;
1993) have commented on the need for biotechnology companies to
moreDand betterDabout what they do, and to participate in public policy
discussions about their products and issues (Hassler, 1994). More
of these companies in the United States are publicly traded (Stone, 1994),
yet they can be hard to distinguish individually.
Moreover, a product can take seven to 12 years to move from research and
development to the point of commercialization (Biotechnology
Organization, 1993). That timeframe can be frustrating as
try to comply with multiple tiers of government regulations,
sources of venture capital, stay abreast of the whims of political
support, and ride the ups and downs of public perception.
Within the context of such a dynamic environment, one that often brings
challenges from activists, an opportunity exists for public
practitioners to learn not only about the public perceptions of this
technology. To increase the prospects of their function adding value
the organization, practitioners in biotechnology enterprises also
understand how their own executives and scientists view the role and
purpose of their public relations and communication programs. Public
relations is used in this paper as the management science concerned
building organizational relationships and solving problems of the
organizational environment, both internal and external, through managerial
decision-making. It encompasses communication as a process or tool
share those decisions with others both inside and outside the
(J. Grunig, 1992).
As a foundation underlying public relations practice, J. Grunig and White
(1992) synthesized Kearney's (1984) concept of worldview as one's
and assumptions about the world. They described it as a "schema"
organizes what a person knows about the world and how he or she makes
of new information. A person's worldview allows the individual to make
assumptions about the relationship between oneself and others. An
organization's worldview is concerned with the relationship between the
organization and others with whom it interacts.
Familiarity with worldviews toward communication (J. Grunig & White, 1992)
can help public relations practitioners within the industry become better
equipped to help their organizations bridge cognitive gaps with
nonscientist and policy-maker publics. In their role as boundary spanners,
public relations practitioners can contribute to their organizations'
effectiveness and long-term survival by focusing on two-way
communication (J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1992). They can accomplish
actively seeking out the needs, interests, and concernsDas reflected
their worldviewsDof both their external stakeholders and their
and research teams. In so doing, public relations managers can plan
communication programs that more effectively help their organizations
their publics adjust to each other, in ways that are appropriate to
This study therefore seeks to contribute to our knowledge of the worldview
of leaders in biotechnology enterprises toward public relations, i.e.,
their beliefs and values about communication, and how they make sense
different viewpoints held by their stakeholders. To conceptualize
of a worldview that are important to effective communication, I begin with
an overview of recent research about the thinking within the biotechnology
industry. This section also includes a brief description of the models of
public relations and what constitutes excellent practice (J. Grunig, Ed.,
1992), and a summary of significant research on public perceptions
biotechnology and risk communication. Next I describe this study's
methodology and findings. Discussion concludes with an assessment of
worldview elements as expressed by the interviewees that have contributed
to effective communication in their own experience. The interview
is attached as an appendix.
Technology is a lens through which we see the world, and biotechnology
(both traditional and new) has the power to change our understanding
of ourselves, of the natural world, and of our place in it.
DEdwin Hettinger (1992)
Despite considerable research about societal concerns involving safety and
risk, moral and ethical reservations, and consumer perceptions,
understanding, and acceptance of biotechnology, little research to date
considers the worldview toward public relations and communication of
working inside the biotechnology industry. Examining the history of
"new" biotechnology, however, quickly reveals scientists' desire to
their research in a socially responsible manner.
When scientists first successfully transferred DNA from one cell to
another, in 1973, the initial realization of new potential gave way to a
realization of vast unknowns that people feared might result from
manipulating living material. In 1975, the scientific community took it
upon itself to meet in Asilomar, California, where more than 150
researchers from around the world discussed their situation. They
upon a moratorium until they would be able to determine that
with their research would be safe both to themselves and to the
(Goodell, 1986; Rabino, 1994).
Plein (1991) found that during the 1980s the industry transformed its
image from one of risk and uncertainty to one of positive potential
familiarity. Four techniques of issue definition enabled this shift:
unifying and organizing the industry's interests; 2) forming
between government regulators and the private sector; 3) associating
technology with a popular issue on the political agenda, i.e.,
development, and disassociating it from issues that, at least at the
were perceived as negative, i.e., the environment and ethical
and finally, 4) portraying those opposed to the technology as
The result of the latter technique was to deny critics in some of
mainstream groups a legitimate chance to gain credibility and
the policy-making process.
Writing from a public administration perspective, Plein credited the
strategy of industry unity as an effective communication tool in the
process. His acknowledgment that the industry failed to meet the heart of
its criticism directly merely nodded toward the possibility that economic
matters could divide biotechnology's supporters in the future, but
not assess in depth the long-run ramifications of discrediting the
Since Plein's article was published, the two major trade associations in
the field merged into one collective entity in 1993, the
Industry Organization (BIO). Where the predecessor organizations
frequently attacked one another at the expense of being able to build
public support, BIO in its first year concentrated on an aggressive
identity-building effort to establish itself in both media and political
circles as the voice of the industry in Washington (D. Eramian,
interview, December 6, 1993; Biotechnology Newswatch, 1993).
The most recent study (Rabino, 1994) that bears on the topic of worldview
toward communication compared how genetic engineering scientists in
United States (n=430) and their colleagues in Europe (n=400) viewed
impact of public attention, political advocacy, regulation and
on their work. Rabino conducted two waves of surveys, both with a
particularly high rate of returnD79 percent in Europe and 74 percent in
United States. This suggests high interest among the scientists because
of both the pervasiveness of the technology and its indispensability
their research in spite of frequent controversies.
European researchers held the more negative views about public scrutiny,
responding that it has hurt more than it has helped their efforts.
attributed this finding to a stricter regulatory environment than in
United States, which relies more on voluntary compliance. In
scientists in this country were more concerned about economic
competitiveness. University researchers were somewhat more likely to
perceive benefits from public attention than researchers in government
laboratories or private industry, again due probably to a difference
As reflected in open-ended comments solicited at the end of the
questionnaire, some scientists in both Europe and the United States
attributed the existence of regulations, strict or otherwise, to pressure
from outside interest groups. Conflict resolution between activists
the industry in this country tends more to litigation while
Europe occur more through face-to-face negotiation, public debate,
political process. In either case, researchers themselves engaged
self-regulation and acknowledged that prudent government regulations,
especially when accompanied by efforts to communicate with the public
allow for public input during the regulatory process, could
public confidence and support for their work. According to Rabino
The majority of researchers...feel that to counter the negative public
image and attention, it is important for genetic engineering
be open and informative with the public (which is viewed as
misinformed) about the methods and aims of their
would have to become more involved in educating, communicating,
policy-making and regulating. (p. 44)
Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in the Context of Risk Communication
Numerous researchers have addressed aspects of risk communication that
determine the degree of public trust and confidence that may evolve
new technologies are introduced. For example, Slovic (1987) focused
psychological strategies people use to make sense out of
Quantitative estimates of risk tell only part of the story; perceptions
attitudes give a broader indication of how great they may consider
risk. Scherer (1991) discussed assumptions that have been questioned
research about risk communication, including the belief that science
could offer objective truth, that scientific experts were the sole
of correct information, and that the public would accept risk
if only it would learn about risk issues. He argued that an
communication process would help avoid a crisis of public confidence;
an alternative process would involve greater understanding of
the public and more openness by the scientific community to other
looking at risk.
One of the better known recent studies about agricultural biotechnology
was Hoban and Kendall's (1992) national telephone survey of
They found respondents generally supportive of science and
including biotechnology, although awareness and understanding of the
were low. Acceptance of uses that involve changing the genetic make-up of
animals was lower than for changes to plants; the process of gene
transfers was of concern possibly as much a result of underlying values
beliefs as of a lack of understanding. Trust surfaced as a central issue:
"Confidence in government regulations and trust in information sources
were strongly related to acceptance of biotechnology products and
attitudes about biotechnology" (p. 5). Health professionals,
scientists, farmers, and environmental groups were perceived as the
trustworthy information providers.
The biotechnology industry hardly can be unaware of what the public thinks
and what its concerns and desires are. During the past decade,
conducted by both public and private sector researchers in the
States have tapped the opinions of almost 6,000 people including
science policy leaders, biology teachers, and random samples of the
(Zechendorf, 1994). Zechendorf (1994) gauged that acceptance of
biotechnology in the United States tended to be favorable in spite of
perceptions of risk. In polls analyzed for significant trends, he found
that most United States citizens feared hazards, were not able to
risk reasonably, perceived less risk for genetic engineering than
technology, thought that biotechnology will improve life, based any
opposition on specific applications, and overwhelmingly (91 percent) got
their information about science and technology from television. Only
relatively few people in the United States were well-informed; the
their education level, the more likely they were to accept
Zechendorf noted, "The overall acceptance is astonishingly high,
considering the rather bad media image of biotechnology" (p. 874).
Taking a different approach, Hornig's (1993) content analysis of newspaper
coverage of biotechnology found many "booster" articles written from an
economic or business point of view. Representatives of industry,
scientists and universities were the most frequent sources, with relatively
little material from activists and agricultural interests. University
sources, in particular, were found to be responsible for positive
more so even than industry voices. Readers' concerns about risk, public
awareness issues, adequacy of research, and ethics rarely were
the newspapers studied. Hornig faulted the media for failure to present a
diversity of views that might stimulate debate and eventually lead to
consensus. Although the researcher was the sole coder, her conclusion
Responsiveness to the public's desire for information on the broad range of
considerations relevant to science policy-making is more likely to build
the atmosphere of trust and the sense of empowerment that must
such confidence. Cynicism about the activities of both public
private interests involved in science and technology is unlikely to
evaporate unless these information needs are met. (pp. 11-12)
Concerns of Activists and Regulators
Earlier, Margaret Mellon (1988), writing for the National Wildlife
Federation, looked not only to government but also to the private sector
provide opportunities for public participation in decision-making.
Federal agencies provide access to information through laws governing
biotechnology and procedural laws applicable to all agencies,
Freedom of Information Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The
degree of access varies from agency to agency. In addition to assuring be
tter decisions, an informed public would be more helpful for
Mellon suggested. Though possibly more costly up front, agencies and
that encourage full information and full participation may stem a rise in
public frustration later, Mellon (1988) continued, especially "if it
becomes apparent that the technology was oversold or its risks
At the opening of the Food Advisory Committee's hearings for the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994, James Maryanski, biotechnology
manager for the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,
noted two different ways of looking at the technology. "Science
recombinant DNA, the public calls it genetic engineering," he said.
on experiments cited in the news media, he added that consumers
impression that "exotic" foods will soon be available. Regardless of how
such foods are developed, consumers rely on the FDA to assure that
safe and to ensure confidence in new techniques, he pointed out.
Not quite a year earlier, the Government Accounting Office (1993) had
summarized some of the unresolved issues as whole food products neared
commercialization. These included providing guidance to industry on a
case-by-case basis and a need to improve interagency coordination,
factors that create regulatory uncertainty. Such uncertainty could
only slow commercialization of new products, it could also undermine
consumer confidence in the agency's efforts to ensure these products are
safe, the GAO said.
Nevertheless, the hearings provided a forum for contrasting perspectives
of industry and activists. Robert Serenbetz, chief executive
DNA Plant Technology, emphasized the importance of keeping the
informed. In his view, the more the technology is demystified and the
the public understands about biotechnology, the more they would appreciate
its potential benefits. "I also believe this public review of FDA's
process for assessing food safety clearly demonstrates to consumers
netically engineered foods do receive rigorous FDA oversight," he
On the other hand, in a statement by Margaret Mellon, now with the Union
of Concerned Scientists, Jane Rissler expressed their concern about
agency's proposed policy allowing whole food products that were
modified into the market . Mellon suggested that early approval of the
policy would place industry's agenda ahead of the public interest.
feared that such action would mislead the public into thinking all
products would go through as extensive an approval and review process
algene's tomato. She and other consumer activists were disturbed
FDA had not answered several thousand concerns or negative comments
received during the public comment period.
More recently Mellon lamented that in-depth information-sharing and
education between regulatory agencies, industry, and the public have not
developed enough. The current public debate is so one-sided, she
isn't salad days for the environmental community... Industry is on its way
but without products at the moment, that aren't yet realized. Without
products it's hard to get people interested [in the issue]" (M.
personal communication, March 21, 1995).
The Case of bST
When several agricultural pharmaceutical companies developed bovine
somatotropin (bST) to increase milk production in cows in the 1980s,
controversy dogged the product from the outset. In one of only a small
handful of studies of public relations practices by a biotechnology
company, Hornig (1991) suggested that use of conflict resolution
such as negotiation might have generated a better outcome from both the
company's perspective and that of society in general. Through a
content analysis, she found that press coverage had afforded
opportunities for the company to express its point of view. Consumer
activist reactions, at least at that time, received far less
Instead of pursuing a course of education and two-way dialogue, however,
the chemical industry during the late 1980s engaged in name-calling
against those who opposed the introduction of bST. Such statements may
well have contributed to the ill will that developed later, Hornig
suggested. In addition, the industry equated bST as simply the next step
in the chain of progress associated with agricultural productivity
economic prosperity. The industry portrayed this product's
inevitable and value-neutral, adding that bST was pure and a product that
was developed at great expense.
Monsanto, for example, attempted to capitalize on an image of science as a
rational, benign and progressive force. The problem was that this image
was not likely to reflect public sentiment accurately in the wake of
Mile Island and other disasters. Thus, Hornig gauged, bST's
would have fared better during the period of her study by going
focus solely on the benefits and addressing additional concerns
product's safety and its socioeconomic impact among prospective
In her assessment, Monsanto ignored the point of view of dairy farmers as
its primary audience and did nothing to work with the dairy community to
explore solutions to the problem.
Hornig (1991) suggested that messages about the introduction of new
technologies succeed when they are congruent with important beliefs of
their audiences and responsive to the perceived needs of potential
adopters. As she put it,
An honest attempt to resolve the conflict of interests here, even a failed
attempt, would have been far better public relations than
trying to deny
the legitimacy of the economic issue, or to deny any
responsibility on the
part of bST's developers for its social as well as health
effects, or to
blame others for the crisis....(p. 9).
It is also possible that Monsanto representatives did speak to those issues
and concerns and that the media chose not to cover that perspective as
In the same year as Hornig's (1991) study of bST, Gerard Ingenthron
(1991), director of public affairs for Monsanto Agricultural Company,
recommended two basic strategies for corporate scientists to
about genetically engineered crops: (a) Addressing the public
implications early during a research program, and (b) engaging in
comprehensive, quality communication activities with a range of diverse
publics. While he regarded scientists as the most credible sources
technical information, he also recognized the need to translate their
expertise in ways that others could understand: "We need to explain
basis of the technology...but one cannot make bioengineers of our
journalists, much less the public. We need to speak on their terms, about
their interestsDwhat's in it for them, or for society" (p. 114).
Organizational Approaches Toward Public Relations
J. Grunig and L. Grunig (1992, pp. 287-289) elaborated on four models to
represent an organization's public relations values, goals, and
In brief, the models are: Press agentry, a one-way set of activities
built on seeking and obtaining publicity; public information, also a
one-way dissemination of information approach, built around truthful and
accurate reports about the practitioners' organizations, although
no other information is volunteered; two-way asymmetrical, which involves
seeking information from and offering information to publics,
motivate or persuade them to think or behave as the organization
to behave; and two-way symmetrical, which uses research to develop mutual
understanding between an organization's management and the publics it
A simpler approach is to collapse these models as symmetrical or
asymmetrical worldviews toward public relations. Only the two-way
symmetrical model is, as its name implies, fully balanced, since it does
not involve manipulative persuasion. Because of its emphasis on
relationships for the long run, this model sets the standard for
and effective practice.
Another way of looking at asymmetrical practice is the relationship
between the organizations and their publics. This type of practice is
unusual if the organization feels its publics have increased
control over its choices more than it finds comfortable. For those
organizations that both conduct research and provide information in a
of symmetrical and asymmetrical communication, their practice may be
described as mixed motive (J. Grunig, 1992). Practitioners demonstrate
loyalty to both their employers and to the publics with whom their
employers interact. Thus, most public relations practitioners in
scientific organizations or departments act as journalists in residence.
They work in the public information model both to translate
material into forms that are easier to understand and to represent
aspects of their organizations, often motivated by the desire to attract
funding for research and development. Sometimes activists oppose
technologies under consideration without understanding them. In this
country a tradition of individualism may inhibit some organizations
engaging in the collective decision-making that the standard of
public relations suggests is more effective in the long run.
In reality, most organizations practice a mix of the models, with the
predominant choice based on the organizational culture. Factors
influencing that choice include whether the organizational worldview
includes, for example, the two-way symmetrical model, and whether the
organization's public relations director is trained or experienced in
To summarize, among the elements of a worldview that contribute to
effective public relations and communication are:
y a spirit of openness and honesty;
y availability and willingness to grant access to information readily;
y interest and ability to express scientific findings and applications in
"real world" terms easily understandable by nonscientists;
y trust-building efforts with both supporters and critics; and
y active listening and taking into account different interests and
viewpoints in the public relations planning process.
The section on methodology describes this study's approach to identifying
whether and to what extent these characteristics are present in the
worldviews of biotechnology executives and scientists.
Communication About Science and Technology Issues with Different Publics
To understand the nature of communication in which scientists engage,
Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien (1973) examined concepts of
"knowledge-about science." "Knowledge-of" science supports and reinforces
the internal views of the science system. For example, the organizations
in their study preferred to control information flow to publics by
releasing material to the press only after publication in a refereed
journal. "Knowledge-about" science is external to the system and
incorporates criticism as well as the release of comprehensive information
and encouragement to journalists to obtain material directly from
in the organization.
Pollack (1986) linked these variables with the influence of the dominant
coalition's values on the models of public relations practiced at
scientific organizations. The dominant coalition is the top
decision-making leadership of an organization, its power elite. For
"knowledge-of" and "knowledge-about" science, the perception of
knowledge by top management determined the nature and timing of
released to the mass media. Of the approximately 200 scientific
organizations that responded to Pollack's survey, most practiced
predominantly the public information model. The two-way asymmetrical model
also was strong in corporations.
In addition to the approaches of administrators, how do scientists
themselves look at communication? In the past they were able to rely on
establishing a track record of accomplishment with their peers to
research support and did not need or want to pursue public
(Nelkin, 1987). But since mid-century, when the Soviets launched
scientists increasingly have popularized science "out of ideological
cultural as well as economic concerns" (pp. 136-137). The National
of Sciences has shifted from explaining and interpreting technical reports
to viewing the press as a means of shaping public attitudes that will
support funding of science.
Scientists in industrial public relations speak on behalf of corporations
to enhance public confidence in the company's products, respond to
that affect the company's reputation, enhance corporate credibility,
shape the news, especially where the news concerns controversy or
(Nelkin, 1987). Too often, however, they dwell on language and image
instruments of persuasion in an asymmetrical approach to
Neighborhood activists, union representatives, and other critics
heard at programs co-sponsored by universities and corporations for
journalists, programs that often seem just to be compatible with
Not surprisingly, as covered by the trade and popular press, the
biotechnology industries generally reflect asymmetrical models of
communication (J. Grunig, 1989; J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1992). There is
also evidence of symmetrical communication. For example:
y Press agentry: In an effort to win the favorable attention of stock
analysts, pharmaceutical biotechnology companies distribute "lots of
attention-grabbing press releases that trumpet their latest research
studies or new manufacturing sites" (Power, 1993). Frequently these
announcements tout positive news only, with no mention of problems.
y Public information: BIO, the trade association, undertook activities
such as trade show exhibits and a special publication for local
officials complete with a resource manual and information about the
industry's potential to create new jobs (Staff, 1994b).
y Two-way asymmetrical: Peter Steinerman (1994), vice president and
director of the biotechnology group at Ruder-Finn Inc., New York,
out several steps for biotechnology firms to utilize marketing
relations techniques. These included research to identify the relative
importance of messages for critical audiences and the impact of
y Two-way symmetrical: Sandoz Crop Protection Corporation developed an
external corporate relations strategy to earn customer respect over
long term. The company expressed a willingness to change its
perspective "to address environmental and safety concerns of
regulators, and the public while still producing effective products"
(Thayer, 1990, p. 15).
For this project, I wanted to gain insight into the thinking of leaders
involved in nationally known biotechnology enterprises, in both the
and private sectors and the industry at large. Qualitative research
particularly appropriate for a study of worldview in public relations
because it is well suited to developing a deeper understanding of
motivations, and interests (Mariampolski, 1984). Further,
methods are most vigorous "when they are used to discover how the
respondent sees the world" (McCracken, 1988, p. 21). A semi-structured
interview protocol, included as an appendix, permitted respondents
flexibility to emphasize what they considered important while allowing
researcher to keep the interview on track.
Drawing from previous experience as public relations director at the
Virginia Department of Agriculture and other contacts through my
in the Public Relations Society of America, I arranged telephone or
face-to-face depth interviews with a small purposive sample. Primary
* Stephen Benoit, most recently vice president of marketing, Calgene
Fresh, with background in finance and strategic planning, and
for both sales and corporate communication;
* Dr. Rita Colwell, a distinguished marine biotechnologist, educator,
director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and
president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and
* Dr. Mary Moynihan, communications coordinator for UMBI, with a
background in writing and editing for regional business and research
In addition, I conducted shorter personal interviews with two other public
relations counselors involved with major companies introducing
biotechnology products. Jim Altemus, public relations manager for Monsanto
Agricultural Company's plant biotechnology office, commented on that
division's current efforts, and Merrill Rose, general manager of
Porter/Novelli's Chicago office and head of this public relations agency's
food and nutrition practice, provided additional information on
I also observed three days of hearings of the Food Advisory Committee to
the FDA in April, 1994, described earlier, as the agency considered
issues surrounding whole foods produced by new biotechnology
Because the FlavrSavr_ tomato was the first product of plant
to be approved for commercial production, Calgene was the object of
precedent-setting attention, within both the industry and the media.
purpose of the FDA hearings went considerably beyond the one
erience, however; the discussion and decisions continue to be
federal policy is determined and evolves for many more whole food products
nearing the point of production for market.
To round out insights culled from the interviews, I also reviewed a number
of company publications, articles about communication by company
executives, and, finally, corporate and financial reports and news articles
from both the trade and daily media, gleaned from searches of the
Lexis-Nexis electronic database and Internet resources. Both the reports
in the news media and literature produced by the companies should be
considered not only in light of what they say but also in light of what
they do not say.
Findings and Analysis
This section reports and analyzes the issues and interests about which
respondents spoke and their approaches to communication about these
As expressed in the literature on public perceptions of biotechnology,
major areas of public interest or concern most often are safety
considerations, presence and type of benefits, and ethical questions. Both
the benefits and the risks may revolve around health, economic and
environmental issues; culinary or taste improvements constitute a
Ethical concerns also may include those based on religious beliefs and
distributive justice, both domestically and internationally.
Among the respondents in this study, their comments reflected all three
areas and particularly the first two, safety and benefits. The
which they typically sought out concerns among their respective
stakeholders and incorporated them into their communication efforts varied,
from informal environmental scanning to sophisticated market research.
That is not surprising, as each organization's situation is
For example, since its founding in 1984, UMBI has pursued a rapid capital
expansion program to establish itself as a leader in publicly
biotechnology research. At the same time that it represents an
growth industry for the state of Maryland, it also has needed to
leanly in light of tight state budget requirements. Much of its
communication effort thus has been geared to generating support among
legislators for its potential to contribute to the state of Maryland's
In the private companies, both Calgene and Monsanto are pioneers with
marketplace "firsts." Monsanto found itself in a reactive mode with
with lessons learned from that experience which appear to be
company's approach to more recent communication efforts. Calgene
undertaken a clearly proactive approach for introducing the FlavrSavr_
Openness and Willingness to Share Information, Coupled with Intellectual
Toward the end of the 1980s, long before the FlavrSavr_ tomato would be
ready to introduce to the marketplace, Calgene sought guidance from
because it recognized the consumer public would be more likely to accept
the product if it were subject to regulatory review (Fox, 1994). In
the company sought a voluntary consultation with the reviewing
followed in 1993 by the chief executive officer's petition for review
the existing, stringent food additive provisions of the Food, Drug, and
Cosmetics Act (Hoyle, 1994). Even FlavrSavr_ critics acknowledged
consideration under those provisions is tougher yet than under the
provisions for whole food products.
The extra review steps cost the company time, money, and jobs, leading to
a restructuring and scaleback of the Calgene Fresh subsidiary during
last half of fiscal 1994 (Rose, personal communication, 1994;
personal interview, 1994; Staff, 1994a). Nevertheless, despite plowing
under a number of its fields since October, 1993, while awaiting the
decision, Calgene expected toDand did indeedDbring the tomato to
before the end of 1994.
Though furloughed from his post as vice president of marketing, Stephen
Benoit was still motivated by a desire to do something challenging.
"That's also what makes Calgene tick," he said, "a positive contribution
using technology to make people's lives a little better. Science
science's sake is not particularly helpful; science with a conscience
what it needs to be all about, a commonly shared value."
Indeed it seemed natural for people working in the biotechnology
industries to feel compelled by both the intellectual challenges and the
desire to improve the quality of human life (Benoit, 1993). Even
is not a scientist himself, Benoit echoed some of the passion with which
UMBI's multi-faceted director, Dr. Rita Colwell, spoke. Driven by
curiosity about why and how things work, Colwell said she loves to build
and to create. For her, the motivation was also a matter of having
vision about where things can be. "The status quo isn't enough,
in a society whose technology is going through enormous pyrotechnics.
It's like a huge fireworks display what's happened in science and
technology in the last 30 years."
Similarly, UMBI's communications coordinator, Mary Moynihan, was attracted
to the institute in part because one of its research centers focused
specifically on public issues in the social, legal, ethical and
Sensitivity to these issues was certainly apparent on an individual level,
perhaps more so than could be seen at the macro-organizational level in
this type of limited study. To wit, Monsanto's Jim Altemus, who was
directly involved with the introduction of bST, observed his
handling of the issue. His own approach in managing the company's
information needs for plant biotechnology reflected an understanding of
both where the company had been and where it wants to go.
"With Monsanto's genetically engineered potato, we're taking a look at
society, people's relation with food," Altemus said. He continued:
It's an intimate relationship, and it is our responsibility to provide
something that talks about those concerns. We prepared a
as an example of our willingness to talk, not just the
scientific point of
view but with others who have other points of view. It
directly relates to
the company's attitudes, what did we learn from the past. Are we
repeating it or are we responding to needs and wants of the people in
open-ended, honorable way? It's an example of Monsanto's
modest, [to show] how does our product fit with ecosystems, with
It's very middle of the road and nondefensive, how can consumers get
ConsumersDor anyone else, for that matterDwho wanted information from
Calgene should have found it readily available, according to Benoit.
were incredibly accessible for them," he said, explaining further:
What we successfully did was communicate openly about what we were doing,
what the technology was, how we were using it, what we
outcome to be. We never had an issue of safety, we were willing to
the research data with anyone who cared to look at it. We had
philosophy to communicate, a willingness to give people the
they want so they can make choices they want to make. That was
hallmark of the effort we undertook.
The company made its safety studies public either on request from its own
offices or through federal agencies reviewing the data. Corporate
sheets also said Calgene Fresh would voluntarily label the FlavrSavr_
tomato as a product of food biotechnology. "We believe that tomato
purchasers need a reason to believe we can deliver a superior product and
that acknowledging the role of technology will provide that
read one news release.
But what those working within the industry are learning to communicate is
not necessarily the detailed scientific findings, even though that
information may be made available. Respondents grasped the need to
their work and to explain it in terms that would be meaningful to their
publics. As Benoit explained, consumers are more concerned with
food product is harmful and what its benefit(s) may be so they can
their own choices.
"One of the great sins is assuming the public is stupid," he said. "We
explained the technology so people could understand what we were
why...better taste is what we will ultimately be judged on. We went
food biotechnology to [still calling] it a tomato."
Where scientists and technologists in years past did not even consider
talking with reporters as a general rule, they largely have come to
understand the importance of doing so now, even if many have not yet
developed the skills. From the inward professional focus of a
as Rita Colwell told it, speaking with the press would have ruined a
scientist's reputation 20 years ago.
"I think the attitude was that what we did was important for its own good.
We didn't have to explain it to anybody, we just deserved the (funding)
because we were serving the country," Colwell said.
With the change in the world political climate, she continued, the fall of
the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the change in the
nation's security and defense needs, attention has focused more
social stability and how we have usedDor misusedDthe earth's resources.
Those shifts in attention have brought a concurrent change in
priorities to the point that public research institutions have a
obligation now to let the public know about both the scientific and
economic benefits. As a state facility, UMBI is monitored by state
legislators, a key strategic public "who will make sure that we
gyroscopically keep us on what they think is the track that the public
wants us to be on," Colwell said. Elaborating on this responsibility,
We have a greater burden on us than, let's say, Johns Hopkins or Stanford
in their respective states... It means that we have a
therefore to tell the public what we're doing, to educate them,
that we are
in fact through basic research and creativity-driven directions in
research, serving them because what we're doing is trying to find
understand what the life processes are or how they work or can
effective...and to also transfer this technology to the public good.
doesn't mean just dumping it on the street but to figure out
ways it is
transferred to create jobs, to keep the economic strength of the
Public Relations Practices as Indicators of Worldview
Beyond the effort to perform out of a concern for social
responsibilityDimproving human life and adding to knowledgeDthe
biotechnology enterprises in this study engaged in a mix of the public
relations models described earlier. Respondents placed a high value
function as part of strategic management, while placing primary emphasis
on media relations and viewing public relations as part of
rather than the other way around. As Colwell expressed it:
[Public relations is] managing interactions with the public. Communication
is a far more serious business, and that means preparing in a variety of
media, spoken, written, visual image, the message, the
education you need
to get done... What you really have to address is the
information that has to be transmitted and it has to constantly be
transmitted, it has to transmitted in a variety of mediaDa brochure
certain kind of clientele, or it would be in the form of a PBS
report, or a
book that goes to another portion of the clientele or in the form of a
Because so much of the communication effort was directed outside the
industry, respondents shared an interest in educating nonscientist
Educational programs served a variety of goals: To inform publics about
both their organizational activities and the basic principles of science
about which they otherwise would be unfamiliar, and thus not able to
choices for lack of adequate information (asymmetrical), and also to
address issues about which publics have expressed concern or interest
Whether based on research or on a particular philosophical approach to
communication, participants in this study recognized that publics
unfamiliar with the subject would be more likely to grasp its significance
if it was described in terms they already understood. Using
is easy to understand is thus a necessary communication skill for
explain their work to nonscientific publics.
UMBI's Mary Moynihan, for one, thought it might even be an advantage not
to have a scientific background to be effective in this regard. As
If I'm going to explain this to the public, and I'm very committed to that,
I don't want to understand it too much myself. You or I think in terms of
what does this mean to me? How is it going to change my life, how is it
going to change the world? Researchers don't think that way.
focused on a specific idea although they know somewhere down the
has applications. We have to find a way to understand their
also how it's going to help us.
Benoit also went through a learning curve to represent the work of
Calgene's researchers to other audiences. He framed it in terms of what
non-scientist executives could offer the research staff:
If you were willing to listen, scientists were more than willing to share
everything they had and take the time until you got it right,
you were not
expected to understand at their level in terms of being
[they showed] a real willingness to have the business folks
essence of the technology. They recognized that if they wanted
any different from working at a university, they needed people
translate their work into products, and that these people
rarely have the
same background as bench people.
Depending on the staff and financial resources available to the
organizations in this study, their research efforts ranged from
seat-of-the-pants to much more formal methods. For instance, UMBI's
communications staff was too small and too rushed at the time of the
to be able to conduct either formative or evaluative research, but
institute did operate an internal clipping service to monitor both its
visibility and other issues of interest in the external environment.
Moynihan, who also doubled as UMBI's legislative analyst, said she
recommended a more systematic scanning effort and hoped to complete a
well-developed communication plan in the near future.
Monsanto's Jim Altemus said he relied heavily on research, testing news
releases, for example, before sending them out. One of his concerns
choose vocabulary that readers not only would understand but also to which
they would respond favorably, one of the characteristics of asymmetrical
communication. At the same time, he wanted the company to be seen
honest and open, "to increase the feeling that Monsanto can be trusted
that technology." Hence, the invitation, printed directly on one of its
reports, for readers to contact Monsanto "to obtain additional
share an insight or simply open a dialog," a symmetrical approach.
Research for Calgene Fresh has investigated consumer awareness of and
attitudes toward genetically modified foods in general and the
tomato in particular. Undertaken primarily for marketing
purposes, the quantitative survey also asked about consumer awareness
groups that opposed such products, finding only three percent able
specific groups. Nearly half of all respondents and two-thirds of
who were already aware of these products expressed at least some
in trying genetically modified foods (Porter/Novelli, 1993).
"We did pretty novel research about why people reacted the way they do
when they hear the phrase 'genetic engineering.' That led to how you
should communicate. You've got to be open, communicate the truth,
in a context people can use to evaluate a given technology," Benoit said.
Taste on a year-round basis was the main consumer interest.
Media Relations a Key Focus
Publicity and visibility figured prominently in the strategies of both
Calgene and UMBI. As a result of the FlavrSavr_ tomato being the
such product approved for market, Calgene experienced mostly
media attention. Without even being in grocery stores yet, the
research found eight percent of the public "aware of a product that
exist and that they can't look at," Benoit added. That level of awareness
was eight times higher than for other tomato brands. In addition to being
the first, he repeatedly emphasized openness and willingness to
communicate about Calgene's actions, the technology and how it was being
used, and the expected outcome. "Communication philosophy should be
tell the truth every chance you get. It's a lot easier," he said.
While Calgene received unsolicited media attention, UMBI also placed great
emphasis on coverage, but from a different perspective. Recognition was
more forthcoming at the international level, perhaps because of
among scientists within the scientific community. That stature has
longer to achieve in-state and nationally. As Colwell put it, "I've
irritated by the fact that we haven't been recognized until recently
place where some very fine work is being done, where some excellent
ducation is obtained. I always wanted to push to make our reputation
better, to let the world know there is a lot of exciting (research)
Colwell's perspective probably stemmed from her insatiable drive both to
know and to excel. In founding the institute, she said:
I just felt we didn't have time to be slow and deliberative and touch all
the bases and make sure everybody's happy and move forward in
traditional way. I felt we really had to leap out and start a
institute and serve all the campuses (of the University of
System), not just College Park.
Her vision transmitted to others who are backing the institute. As
Moynihan related, "It's a great leap of faith that the state is making.
There's a certain gestation period that goes along with setting up
kind of institution and it's beginning to show definite results."
Much of UMBI's communication effort was directed to media coverage in an
effort to create awareness of the research it sponsors. This kind
activity fits the public information model quite well and also reveals
aspects of symmetrical communication. Business and trade press coverage
increased substantially, as well as television appearances. One of
reasons Colwell was eager to build recognition through the media was
anticipation that Maryland residents who were aware of UMBI and its
uld ask state legislators to support it. Media coverage also tied
communicating openly, as she explained:
Now I think we understand that we have to tell the public because the money
isn't coming to us because we deserve it, it comes to us because we serve,
not because we deserve. Communication is a very important aspect, and I
just think if you can't tell people what you're doing, you
ought not to be
doing it... If you have an interest in doing it as I do, you
make an effort
to talk on PBS or to make a TV program as I will be doing on Thursday next
week, or just open up to the school kids who call in on closed circuit and
From her vantage point as a writer, Moynihan noted that many good stories
go untold, and amid UMBI's fast-paced environment, she expressed a
to cultivate media relations more extensively, by calling reporters
story ideas, editorial boards, op-ed pieces, and similar tactics.
Facilitating reporters' efforts to get information, she said she steered
them to the appropriate staff and research experts and allowed them
to make their own contacts although most came to her for assistance first.
At the time of this study, she was developing an experts' directory on
computer, intended to make that part of the jobDboth hers and the
pressDeven easier. Tours for legislators and museum visits featuring
interactive skits for inner city students were other popular
Other techniques also fit the public information model, including museum
exhibits and the opening of UMBI's new Aquaculture Research Center
Point. Internal communication was strengthened through a newsletter which
introduced staff at the institute's geographically dispersed centers both
to each other and to external supporters.
Less Systematic Approach to Critics and Activists in Trust-Building Efforts
Research elsewhere has documented that the presence of activists in an
organization's external environment can be a significant influence on
organization's communication (L. Grunig, 1992). Those whose
broad enough to listen to different interests and viewpoints will be
likely to practice two-way symmetrical public relations.
In this study the respondents indicated some movement in that direction,
although none specifically solicited input from activist groups as
their strategic planning processes. The organizations and the
groups interacted as their paths crossedDduring participation on
panels, or as the organizations responded to criticisms they considered to
be misstatements of fact or misconceptions that needed to be cleared up.
Calgene's Stephen Benoit said that even those who opposed the introduction
of the FlavrSavr_ tomato acknowledged that the company had done everything
it could to communicate about the product and make itself accessible.
From his perspective:
There were not many criticisms about the way we do business. The activist
groups didn't come to us, but we met with them...on many panels
I like a lot of them as a matter of fact, we just have
different points of
view. One of the humbling experiences early on, you think
you're on the
forefront, but not everybody knows who you are, and it's a
of people who actually care. That keeps you from overreacting
more than you need to in the media.
An attentive ear and a desire to adjust organization performance to
address critics' concerns can guide an appropriate response. UMBI's
Colwell analyzed the feedback process this way:
I listen to the critics to find out what it is that they're worried about.
If they're worried about a lot of things that are simply impressions that
we're not explaining, we need to do a better job, to let them
what we're doing and why we're doing it....Criticism generally
ignorance. I use that word not pejoratively but simply as an observation:
What you don't know, you fear.
Summary, Limitations, and Implications
At the beginning of this paper, I cited an observation that public concern
can have a positive effect in stimulating development of new technologies.
Where organizations gear their communication to be responsible and
responsive, meaningful dialogue occurs and the organizations and their
publics adjust to each other's needs and interests. This study took a
qualitative approach to gain insight into the worldviews of
executives and scientists toward communication and public relations.
Understanding their values as well as the values of stakeholders can
public relations practitioners perform more effectively as boundary
spanners, helping that adjustment process take place.
Depth and personal interviews with leaders of three significant
biotechnology enterprises revealed a mix of public relations models in
practice. The small number of interviewees means their observations
not be taken as representative of all in the industry. Moreover,
small number of participants per organization does not give a
picture of the organization's behavior, although the documentation
helps to fill in some of the gaps between individual perception and
collective action. Also, the accuracy of the self-reports in this study
may be questioned in light of possible response bias according to
the interviewer may think the researcher wants to hear and the use of real
names for attribution. However, Dean and Whyte (in Dexter, 1970),
emphasized, "The interview situation must be seen as just ONE of many
situations in which an informant may reveal subjective data in
ways" (p. 122).
In that light, then, and mirrored against the literature discussed in the
concept analysis, the participants' thoughts do provide an
how at least some in the industry make sense of the communication
That knowledge should be helpful to practitioners in other biotechnology
organizations. Future research should supplement this type of
quantitative assessments of the models practiced, such as the
utilized by the IABC Excellence Study (J. Grunig, Ed., 1992).
Respondents viewed the function as an important part of management
although the term public relations may be seen as part of communication
rather than the other way around. When their worldviews demonstrated
openness and a willingness to grant ready access to information in
to the interests and needs of their publics, they experienced greater
acceptance and potential support for their programs. They perceived
motivations deriving from a desire to serve the public good. To a
degree they conducted research to learn whether their publics
similarly. Much of their programming was educational in nature,
predominantly although not exclusively in the asymmetrical mode.
Of the worldview characteristics identified as significant for effective
public relations and communication, the major area not found in this
was a systematic effort to develop more trusting relationships. I
interpret this gap to mean the characteristic is not an important
the worldview or that there is anything wrong with the worldview of
interviewees. Rather, I would like to grant the benefit of the
Efforts at trust building well may exist at the respondents'
and simply may need a different line of questioning to afford an
opportunity for discussion. It also may be that such efforts exist and are
focused on supporters but not on critics. Alternatively, these
enterprises may be so caught up in this rapidly changing industry that an
effort seen as time-consuming over the long term gets put off while
organizations address more immediately pressing, short-term concerns.
is a topic that future research should consider and for which other
methods of observation, such as long interviews or participant
would be better suited.
In sum, biotechnology researchers and executives recognize much of the
value that effective public relations and communication can
their organizations. The organizations in this study likely need to
broaden their perspective to a long-term view as well. The value of the
present study is in suggesting an understanding of worldviews toward
function as an avenue through which both the organizations and their
publics can work through their differences together. Learning about
other's values and beliefs is a first step toward achieving
support. What's needed, as Rita Colwell put it, is "vision tethered by
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Interviews/respondents for this study:
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Plant Biotechnology Information, Monsanto, The Agricultural Group,
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President, Marketing, Calgene Fresh, Evanston, IL, subsidiary of Calgene,
Inc., Davis, CA)
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University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, College Park, MD)
Moynihan, Mary, Ph.D. (1994, May 5). Personal interview. (Communications
Coordinator, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, College
Rose, Merrill. (1994, Apr. 15 & Apr. 27). Personal communication.
(Executive Vice President and General Manager, Porter/Novelli, Chicago,
Position title and experience
Interests, goals and motivations; how you got involved in science or
leadership or current position
Role models, both generally and for effective communication
Your philosophy of: 1) Communication and public relations; 2) new or
innovative technology; 3) reasonable risk (how you see the purpose of
Significant changes, if any, in your philosophy in these three areas
2. Organization's worldview of communication and public relations
Examples of what you consider effectiveDand ineffectiveDorganization
management, and specifically, public relations and communication actions
that are or have been effective in accomplishing the
(probe: to get beyond tools and techniques, specific examples or events
or issues involving other organizations, and how they have handled
communication surrounding those examples)
How these organization events/experiences may have shaped your thinking
about effective public relations and communication management
How your thinking may have shaped the organization's decisions regarding
public relations and communication
Discrepancies, if any, between what you think should be and what you
perceive to be the way the organization practices public relations and
Who the key stakeholders and publics are, including those from community
relations, grassroots, and activist standpoints, and whether these
stakeholders are supporters or critics or a mix
How your organization interacts with these stakeholders
Your perception of the organization's external environment; where you see
Your organization's interests, needs, concerns, and what you think the
interests, needs, concerns are of your stakeholders
Ways, if any, in which you have incorporated stakeholders interests/needs/
concerns into your planning and decision-making processes
4. Organization structure
Strategic alliances, partnering, and similar "virtual" relationships, if
Degree of authority managers/employees have to make communication and
public relations decisions independently
5. Decision-making processes
Flow of internal communication in your organization when you are
considering communication with external stakeholders
Who provides input and who makes decisions
What happens if the decision made is different from what you would have
chosen, i.e., how staff, including yourself, co-orient with each
considering different viewpoints
6. Anything else respondent would like to share, and close