Beyond the Deficit Model

Communication professionals working in agricultural biotechnology are faced with a laundry list of problems when communicating with the public. Not least of these problems concern the technical difficulties of explaining what is a complex issue to a public overwhelmed with jargon, multiple messages and a whole host of other pressing issues competing for attention. Compounding matters is the inherent nature of agbiotech, it is a touchy subject. For a range of reasons agBiotech pushes a lot of concern buttons with publics, making the communication challenge even more difficult.

The provision of agbiotech facts has been top of the list for many biotechnology advocates over the last 20 years. Palenchar and Heath (2002) termed this the “atheoretical approach” whereby the problem is defined as public ignorance for which the obvious solution is the provision of information and advice by experts. Industry has lined up credible “experts” in their hundreds, attempted to leverage 3rd parties to act on their behalf. Getting the facts over, defeating the NGO and activist misinformation has been the core goal, “a better informed public will be more inclined to accept biotechnology for what it is.”

There are a number of problems with this approach. If the priority is to develop greater “awareness” of agBiotech, believing that the public will become more accepting of complex issue such as biotechnology once they come to know more about them (Irvin & Wynne, 1996),there are glaring problems. This so called “deficit model” of communication is not supported by communication theory or research, or by the experiences of those who have launched campaigns based on deficit model thinking (Hansen, Holm, Frewer, Robinson & Sandoe, 2003)!

One should also remember when the UK government in June 2003 sponsored a nationwide series of public discussion fora entitled GM Nation? The official report concluded that, “The more people engaged in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns” (Dept. of Trade and Industry 2003).

So if building awareness of a complex, controversial issue is counterproductive, what can be done?

Certainly, risk communication has a role to play, but we believe that risk communication in biotechnology has to take an entirely different approach to that commonly advocated and practiced by industry and other actors. If one is not careful, risk communication very quickly becomes run of the mill PR, marketing or even “precautionary advocacy” , raising concern/awareness where there was none before (often what one attempts to do in communication on public health issues) Typically short sound bite type messages are delivered and the focus is on the facts, leverage with the support of credible experts and third parties. Defend the science at all costs, rebut all the activist “misinformation”, dismiss their “myths, lies and fallacies” is the rallying cry!

Risk communication in Agbiotech is being slowly redefined, but modern risk communication solutions in Agbiotech clearly need to be adopted at the beginning, right at the decision-making phase, right when products are being developed. It is no good developing products, going through the regulatory process and then finding out that the product simply cannot be defended. We have heard a number of executives from both plant and animal biotech of companies over the last few months expressing their frustration at how the public just don’t understand . The public does not want to hear that it is a great product. They need more!

Risk communication must also focus on Agbiotech concerns, such as Peter Sandman’s outrage issues/factors, and in order to do so, actions must be taken that go far beyond communications.

We believe that learning lessons from marketplace trust experts can also provide clues to how GM technology can be repositioned in the minds of the consumer. Right now GM’s brand value is hardly something to boast about, and this is not a fair reflection on the usefulness of the technology and the role it should be playing in society today and in the future.

Branding gurus like Scott Bedbury (Nike (Just do it) and Starbucks) prescribe against awareness measures as a measure of brand value. Without personal relevance and true meaning a brand can have all the awareness in the world and still fail. Just look at those companies during the dotcom era that took out expensive ads during the Super Bowl. Those mistakes in strategy provided lessons in building trust that still echo today.

In order for consumers to accept GM foods and Agbiotech in general, they must trust the technology, the providers, and the products. This is the essence of brand development in the marketplace. It is a marketplace full of competitors all of whom are aware of where the GM brand (the perception in the mind of the consumer) currently lies in many countries. And that is hardly of value when one considers the competitive framework where GM is trying to compete. Just why should consumers buy GM, what is its unique selling proposition? Many of the concerns about GM center it being of industrial origin, being unnatural and unethical. Organic agriculture is thriving as the brand antithesis to the unnatural, synthetic and industrial. Just where does that leave GM, with these unwelcome perceptions, in a hyper-competitive marketplace?

Of course, brand development provides important indicators that go way beyond the deficit model of communication, awareness building or benefits centred communications. These indicators centre on trust, and as risk communication theory points out, without trust there is no acceptance of risk. Along with an approach that focuses on reducing concerns (outrage), and providing legitimate relevant and personal benefits to consumers (Frewer, 2011) Agbiotech has a chance of reinventing itself in the minds of publics, though it will not be easy.