May 18, 2016

Infamous for Keeping Clients Secret, Berman Admits to Advising Monsanto on GMOs

By Matt Corley

In June 2014, Richard Berman, the infamous president of corporate public relations firm Berman and Company, pitched a room full of energy company executives on his team’s work in fighting an anti-fracking initiative in Colorado. Noting that critics often want to know the names of the donors behind his campaigns, Berman said he runs all his work “through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors,” allowing “total anonymity” for his clients.

He added that he was “religious” about not identifying the companies who fund his work. “At least I’m not going to allow them to get used,” Berman said. “And I don’t want companies to ever admit that because it does give the other side a way to diminish our message.”

But Berman appeared to break his own rule in a recent interview with the Cato Institute, mentioning a company he has advised by name, agribusiness giant Monsanto:

BERMAN: I’ve moved people to different points of view over time just by changing the language. You know, I often told Monsanto, I’ll just use one company’s position here, I often told Monsanto they made a very big mistake when they called genetically modified, GMOs, when they call them genetically modified organisms exactly that. Why would you call, why would you tell people it’s safe to eat genetically modified organisms? That’s not the first thing that you think of when you get out of bed in the morning, that I want some genetically modified organisms with my Cheerios. On the other, on the other hand, if they had just called these new foods that they were creating with science, if you call them genetically modified foods, or more importantly, genetically improved foods, so if you called them GIFs, genetically improved foods, rather than GMOs, you immediately would have had a different reaction on the part of the public. And so, I think you could have moved the needle enormously. It wouldn’t have gone so far south if you had just used different language.

Listen (start at 14:15):

Berman is infamous in Washington, DC for using nonprofit groups established and run by his for-profit firm for “shoot the messenger” campaigns to defend the interests of restaurants, the energy industry, food and alcohol companies, and even Big Tobacco. As he told 60 Minutes in 2007, “[t]he businesses themselves don’t find it convenient to take on causes that might seem politically incorrect, and I’m not afraid to do that.” These “causes” have included opposing all efforts to raise the minimum wage, attacking Mothers Against Drunk Driving as “neoprohibitionist,” and even disputing the science that connects secondhand smoke to cancer.

Critics have long believed that Monsanto was one of the funders of Berman’s work. Years ago, the Center for Media and Democracy obtained a list of corporate contributions to one of Berman’s nonprofits, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and its predecessor, the Guest Choice Network. Monsanto was listed as contributing $200,000 in 2001.

Berman has sought to cast doubt on the accuracy of the leaked list of past donors, claiming it is only “in part accurate” and was actually “a list of targeted potential donors.” But Berman’s comments to Cato about Monsanto suggest the company likely did contribute to the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is now officially known as the Center for Organizational Research and Education.

Though it is impossible to know if Monsanto has continued to support Berman, his nonprofit came to the company’s defense as recently as 2014 when Center for Consumer Freedom research director Will Coggin, a Bermanco employee, wrote a series of letters-to-the-editor declaring that a “March Against Monsanto” was actually a “March Against Science.” The Center for Consumer Freedom along with another Berman project, the Center for Accountability in Science, have also continued to defend GMOs while attempting to rebrand them as “genetically improved foods.”

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