Monsanto’s Started a Blog: Conversation with Critics, or the Same Old PR?
Yesterday’s Post-Dispatch had a story on the front page of the Business section that immediately caught my eye: St. Louis-based agribiz giant Monsanto has started blogging (and Twittering and YouTube-ing).
That’s right: Monsanto, the company many of us in the sustainability sphere love to hate, has entered the conversation.
That, on the surface, is a good thing.
Of course, the devil’s in the details. As occasional contributor Max Gladwell pointed out in “10 Ways that Social Media and Sustainability Line Up,” social media can provide a high return on investment for a business… provided its efforts are grounded in transparency. I’d add that such efforts must also be based in a genuine desire to interact: social media is conversation, and all parties have to both talk and listen. Without these elements, a corporate blog will strike its intended audience as just another effort at message control.
Monsanto’s blog also seems to validate another of Max’s points: much of the content so far has consisted of responses to grassroots criticisms of the company ventures into biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering of crop seeds. As blogger and public affairs manager John Combest told the P-D, “”There was this big conversation going on (on the Internet), and we weren’t a part of it.”
So, how’s the company doing in its initial forray into the blogosphere?
At this point, I’d argue they still have a lot to learn.
Yes, they’re new to this, and I’m not sure there’s any way to learn how to blog well other than on-the-job training. As such, they’ll make plenty of mistakes early on.
I’m more concerned, though, about the overall tone I’m seeing in the blog. It’s difficult to get a real conversation (versus a shouting match) going if you tend to dismiss your critics. And there’s an awful lot of that so far. Take these passages from the “Why a Monsanto Blog?” page:
The title Monsanto According to Monsanto is a spoof of The World According to Monsanto, a horribly biased documentary which portrays Monsanto in a very negative light. Aside from the shoddy journalism, we at Monsanto found it incredibly arrogant that the filmmaker would present her own twisted view of Monsanto as the company’s view of the world… (my link added for the film)
Monsanto has a fair number of critics. Technology in agriculture is an emotional topic and there are organizations or individuals who generally oppose modern agriculture or biotechnology. This blog will be used on a rather frequent basis to respond to criticism leveled against Monsanto and the use of technology in agriculture.
Here’s another example from “Indian Farmer Suicide — The Bottom Line“:
[Biotech] cotton is making life better in India. Unfortunately, critics of biotech do not like these favorable statistics or news reports, so they rely on baseless smear campaigns to create a visceral reaction in those who are unfamiliar with the facts. Debt is the reason for Indian farmer suicide–but the economic benefits from Bt cotton may be the key to reversing the tragic statistics.
Monsanto’s blogger could certainly argue that this is tone critics have take with the company. To a large degree, they’re right. But, at this point in my search of their archives, I have yet to see any effort to acknowledge critics who are informed on the science of biotechnology, and still don’t like the company’s activities. There are plenty of them out there…
A couple of other notes: According to the P-D article, any employee at Monsanto can contribute to the blog, and they’re encouraged to do so. So far, though, the only posts have come from the dedicated blog team, all of whom are members of the public affairs department. Secondly, the “Why a Monsanto Blog?” page claims that the company will use this venue to “to levy some criticism ourselves” (which I assume means criticism of the company… though it doesn’t specifically say that). If I’m interpreting that right, I have yet to see any efforts on this front. But they’ve definitely taken plenty of shots at critics (which is what they may have meant).
This is a very new effort, so I don’t want to be too critical: Monsanto is making an effort here. At this point, though, this effort feels very much like typical corporate communications in a more conversational voice. If that turns out to be the sum total of their blogging efforts, I doubt they’ll see much ROI on it. If they’re genuinely willing to listen to informed criticism, and to get decision-makers into the mix of bloggers, this could represent a substantive step forward.
The blogosphere’s a messy marketplace of ideas; corporations, however, value message control. A few companies have done well entering the social media space. They jury’s still out on Monsanto (as it should be)… we’ll want to keep a close eye on their efforts, though.
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