Learning communications lessons from GM & other techno-disasters

This is an article which was first printed in Ethical Corporation magazine here

In Australia there appears to be a growing backlash from scientists and farmers against a recent Greenpeace campaign trashing genetically modified (GM) crops. The green group have been accused of jeopardising lives by interrupting valuable research into disease resistant plants.

At the same time, Mark Lynas’ controversial book ‘The God Species’ has been published, which explores the problems and solutions of the nine “Planetary Boundaries”.  He concludes that GM is an essential part of the mix to help us feed the planet sustainably.

The scientists I speak to have always felt the total ban on all GM was a nonsensical and self-defeating strategy and many are growing much more vocal about this.

So has the technology’s time come again in Europe?  What lessons can we learn from that failed introduction a decade ago, for other technologies?

At Matter, a UK based think tank, we’ve been looking at this issue in more depth in relation to nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

Our initial focus was governance issues, through the multi-stakeholder development of the Responsible Nano Code, a principles-based code to help companies develop and market nano-enabled products responsibly.

We then began to explore the issues of transparency and communication – a key component of the Code – through our project Walking with Stakeholders, the first part of which was published this week.

Our starting point was to understand in more detail what the public wants to know from companies to give them confidence in the products using these technologies. As we couldn’t afford to do our own public engagement on this, MATTER conducted a literature review of 23 publications, mainly public dialogues, on a variety of technologies, particularly nanotech, synthetic biology and the use of stem cells.  Here’s what we found.

Is it how you say it?

Communication lies at the heart of both the problem and the opportunity of new technologies.

Businesses and governments must communicate more effectively about their vision for the role of these new technologies.

They must they think through the social and environmental benefits and risks and explain that to us.

The systems and processes they have in place to oversee their development must be obvious and transparent.

If these points are addressed by business and government, then our research indicates we would all be much more willing to accept the use of even the spookiest technologies.

Our starting point with this project was to try to understand what public really wants to know from companies to give them confidence in the products using these technologies.

We reviewed 23 publications, principally government sponsored dialogues with the general public, where those taking part were asked for their views on a variety of technologies, particularly nanotech, synthetic biology and stem cell research.

Transparency counts

The fundamental starting point is that when new technologies are used, the public want companies to be open about it. They want to have a choice.

This sounds like a no brainer. However, using nanotechnology as an example, there are at least 350 nano-enabled products available in Europe, yet our trawl of company websites showed there is virtually nothing available on where and how they are currently being used.

There is a great deal of nervousness among companies, who are confident of their use of nanotech, for example in sunscreens, but worry that the ‘n word’ will strike fear into the hearts of customers unnecessarily and so keep quiet.

But the dialogues we reviewed indicate very positive public reactions, even involving the most futuristic of technologies, if the wider benefit is clear and easy to understand and meaningful information is available, preferably from a variety of sources. Maybe they can come out of their shell and tell us more about what they are doing!

Motive matters

People were worried about why the technology was being used: were scientists doing it just to see if they could, or companies simply finding clever new ways to relieve them of their cash?

They wanted a much richer picture about the benefits. So not just that the nano-enabled product would give them fewer wrinkles or kill some more germs, but also what other problem was being solved, how nanotechnology can improve on existing solutions and that social or environmental issues have been considered and acted upon.

This doesn’t mean that incremental improvements would not be acceptable, but they need to add real customer benefit and need explaining very clearly.

There was more interest than we expected in whether the system of regulation and oversight was working. Though the public appears to know they weren’t going to be that interested in reading about that themselves, they have a strong desire to know that strong independent organisations are available to keep an eye on that process.

They want to know that when things go wrong, someone is responsible and liable, and has thought about how will it be put right.

“They aren’t interested in all that boring technical stuff” I hear you cry. Yes, true. If it is boring and technical. But though of course the behaviours and processes needed to reassure go far deeper than a simple communications strategy, we believe that being much more open about the why, what, when, where and how, will help to build confidence in the technology and the products it enables.

There are many innovative ways of communicating and engaging with customers and the wider public which can reassure people that your use of new technologies is based on sound science and a real public benefit.

So the fundamental communications lessons from GM appears to be threefold:

  1. Make the use of the technology compelling in terms of benefit to human health or the environment, not just company profit. Be open about your use of the technology and communicate a richer picture of that benefit to the public
  2. Understand the risks and think through the wider social or ethical implications of its use with a wider group of stakeholders. Communicate about this the systems and processes you have in place to bring products to market.
  3. Fundamentally be open and innovative about your use of new technologies, don’t duck the tricky issues.

For a youtube video Prezi presentation on Matter’s nanotechnology communications research, go here.

 

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