Monsanto and Burson-Marsteller Hire a Consumer Organizer

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This article was first published as "Monsanto and Burson-Marsteller Hire a Consumer Organizer", PR Watch, volume 6, number 4, Fourth Quarter 1999. The original article was authored by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Executives at the Burson-Marsteller PR firm are saying as little as possible about their pro-biotech PR campaign for the Monsanto company. Jerry Morrison, a longtime consumer and labor organizer who now runs a firm called the Strategic Consulting Group, says he didn't even know Monsanto was the end client when B-M hired him in early November to pitch local groups about the merits of genetically modified foods.

Morrison has especially close ties with Citizen Action of Illinois, the state's leading consumer organization. In 1998, he ran the successful U.S. congressional campaign of Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Citizen Action board of directors who is well-known as a Chicago consumer advocate. Morrison's business partner, Bob Creamer, is Schakowsky's husband and was Citizen Action's executive director prior to resigning last year under a cloud related to his handling of the organization's finances.

Morrison was hired in conjunction with public hearings that the Food and Drug Administration has scheduled as part of its "Biotechnology in the Year 2000 and Beyond" program. In Chicago, a hearing was held on November 18, with some environmentalists complaining that they received very little advance time to register. The FDA initially booked a room with seating of only 100, and some people say when they called they were told the roster was already full. After the number of people wanting to speak surpassed 500, FDA moved the hearing to a larger venue. Morrison readily admitted that B-M has hired him to meet with farmers, unions, consumer and "faith-based" groups to counter what he describes as "environmentalist public hysteria" about biotech foods.

"I've been a union organizer, a community organizer," Morrison said. "I'm not going to have my credentials questioned by these folks. On most issues I work with environmental groups. I disagree with them on this issue. Burson-Marsteller has approached me to work with them on a number of other issues in the past and I declined because I disagreed with them, but I agree with them on this issue."

In fact, Morrison's liberal credentials appear to be precisely the reason he was hired. PR Watch interviewed several activists who disagree with Morrison's position but declined to be quoted on the record. "I'm a friend of Jerry's," explained one, who said he is "pissed off" at his decision to work for Burson-Marsteller. Morrison's connections, he said, make it easier to stifle organized consumer opposition to biotech foods. "It may not mean that Citizen Action goes out and says they're fine," he said. "It may just mean that they're silent, and that can be worse." (Note: Citizen Action has informed us that it supports mandatory labeling for genetically-modified foods.)

Both Morrison and Burson-Marsteller have been cagey about the details of their work. Morrison told O'Dwyer's PR Services that he coordinates his work with B-M's Chicago office, but refused to give the name of the person he reports to. John LaSage, B-M's Midwest Region Chairman, said he wasn't aware that Morrison had been hired. Peter Himler, B-M's executive vice president for media relations, even refused on November 11 to confirm that Monsanto was a client. However, the New York Times reported on November 12 that Monsanto "recently retained Burston-Marsteller ... at an annual cost of millions of dollars."

Direct Impact, a subsidiary of B-M specializing in "grassroots PR," has also been involved in trying to get pro-industry testimony at the FDA hearings.