Many biotech companies may be trying to create consumer acceptance and trust for products such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other new technologies the wrong way.

So says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the not-for-profit Center for Food Integrity (CFI), which has researched what will work.

Trying to convince consumers that technologies such as GMOs are safe by using science and rational arguments is a natural thing for researchers, experts and academics to do, but facts and figures won’t get the job done, he explained.

Arnot gave the concluding talk at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s AgBiotech Summit 2016 in Chapel Hill earlier this month.. He started by outlining how many people became skeptical of institutions in general and of new technology in particular. It all started in 1968, he said.

In 1968, general distrust of institutions evolved from a confluence of happenings. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed dissention in the convention hall and in the streets. Opposition to the Vietnam War, brought into living rooms on TV nightly, was growing.

Then, in 1972, the Watergate break-in shook confidence in American government and its leaders. That was followed in the 1980s by the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and televangelist Jim Bakker packed off to jail for fraud.

The 1990s saw Enron and resulting disruption of the public accounting firms that led to increased regulation of businesses.

Since then we’ve had the John Edwards and Tiger Woods scandals and the disastrous sub-prime mortgage collapse.

Tragic events, people leave widespread disgust

All of this, Arnot said, led to distrust of government, political, religious and business institutions. “We became skeptical about whether institutions are worthy of our trust.” In biotech, we saw mergers and acquisitions result in companies that provide better food, but that also led to consumers “seeing us as an institution.”

The communications revolution brought about by the Internet fostered a change from getting trusted information from mass communication sources to getting it from “masses of communicators.” That means we have access to unlimited information – but each of us chooses to sort and sift that information as it relates to us

“It used to be authority was granted by office, now it’s granted by relationships,” Arnot said, getting to the heart of the Center for Food Integrity’s research. “We all have special interests and seek information that tends to reinforce our worldview. It’s much more tribal.”

Control has shifted from institutions to the marketplace, Arnot said. “Social license,” the ability to do business without a lot of regulations, laws, licensing and compliance, can be lost in an instant. “One person can invalidate social license for the group if he violates the shared obligation to do what’s right.” There are no premiums for doing what’s right but there are serious penalties.

“We operate on the assumption that the public is logical and rational and that if we give enough data, it will instill trust. But CFI research shows that shared values or confidence is three to five times more important than data or facts in shaping opinion.

Scientific justification no substitute for shared values

“You can’t substitute scientific justification for shared values. It does little to influence what people feel and believe.”

Today, Arnot said, “People crowdsource their knowledge. The communications environment is changing rapidly and the network or tribal model means we have to think differently about our messaging. We have to think differently about how we choose to engage.”

Companies need to be aware of the factors that trigger social outrage, such as lack of transparency, intentional wrongdoing, failure to accept responsibility, a poor record of public performance, and putting private interests ahead of public ones, among others.

Consumers are looking for an alternative to the industrialized food system and people believe the bigger a company is, the more likely it will put its interests ahead of the publics. “There is a bias against size and scale,” Arnot said. “The larger you are, the more skepticism you’ll face.”

Transparency is key

CFI research does point the way to successful communications strategies, however. Right at the top of the list is transparency. “If you’re not transparent, people think you have something to hide. And in agriculture, our mantra has been, ‘We have nothing to hide but it’s none of your business.’ We have to get over the last part of that.”

Arnot outlined basic principles of transparency, which include:

  • Show you can balance self-interest with public interest;
  • Disclose both positive and negative information, even if it might be damaging;
  • Include stakeholders – ask those interested in your activities for input and make it easy to provide;
  • Explain how and why you made decisions;
  • Be relevant – share information that stakeholders think is relevant;
  • Accept responsibility —admit mistakes, apologize, , engage critics, and share plans for change.

“Transparency is no longer optional. Don’t expect to fly under the radar. If you’re operating under the assumption ‘no one will find out,’ you’re naive. “

Even then, “It would be nice if just the facts worked, but it’s not as simple as giving more information and being rational. Who you are is as important as what you know.”

Arnot recommends, “Embrace skepticism. Learn to speak the language of social media, because if all you do is regurgitate data, you’ll lose people. Begin all your public engagements with shared values, why you do what you do, why you care, and your passion for what you’re doing.”

“You may not be able to do anything with ideologues, but you can find out who is listening to them and provide a counter-narrative that gives them permission to think about the problem differently.”

The CFI website includes this downloadable PDF document outlining its research in detail, infographics, and specifics on the values most meaningful to today’s consumers regarding food and technology.

Another site designed specifically to answer questions about GMOs is GMO Answers

For a look at the economically devastating consequences when things go wrong and how even then they can be handled well, see: