Talk matters when it’s the harder option

Companies frequently get a bad rap for ducking tough issues and trying to ignore areas of controversy. So it’s only fair that those who do step up get the credit.

When Bayer Crop Science bought Monsanto for $63 billion it knew it was taking on some tough reputational issues, not least the issue of glyphosate. It is the main ingredient in the world’s most widely used weed-killer and a red rag to a bull for many activists and campaigners. 

Not a day goes by without a raft of bad news articles on the topic, many ignoring the scientific consensus.

So at Bayer’s annual Future of Farming Dialogue last month, in front of a few hundred journalists and media, the company’s media team would only be human if it hoped the topic would not need addressing.

That was never going to happen. And they knew it.

So, Bayer addressed the elephant in the room from the get-go. It scheduled a 45-minute briefing on glyphosate later in the day and duly delivered senior management to meet the media and take questions. 

It was the right thing to do. And here’s a few reasons why, in no particular order.

  1. The journalists were going to ask about glyphosate regardless of what people may have hoped, so the briefing was a good way to ring-fence the debate and hold the conversation on its terms and timings
  2. The aim of the event is ‘dialogue’ – it’s in the name, after all – and attempting to close down the subject would immediately contradict and devalue the Dialogue
  3. The company has committed publicly to transparency (it already publishes lots of research data to help other scientists) and this is another way to live up to the promise
  4. It’s in the company’s interest to give its side of the story, provide arguments for its supporters, bust a few myths and state its intentions for the new combined business.
  5. And people are concerned, naturally, about the food they eat. This was an opportunity to acknowledge that, to restate the science and to reassure. 

Now, Bayer wasn’t able to provide all the answers to all the questions in a manner which will satisfy all its critics. It will never be able to meet some people’s expectations.

Here’s the big thing though. 

Bayer didn’t have to put itself into the firing line of so many journalists at its big set-piece event of the year, just days after completing its acquisition of Monsanto.

It could have said the Dialogue was focused on other topic, deflect and dissemble. But instead it decided that it was better for the new business, in its first major public outing, to tackle the subject head-on rather than take the easy, safe route. The press briefing also gave the rest of the Dialogue greater depth too.

I don’t think anyone at Bayer would expect to receive much in the way of credit for doing the briefing. They’d have been criticised, of course, if they’d not spoken out, but that’s the nature of things. Companies are rightly expected to answer tough questions, after all, if they want to be trusted and have their licence to operate.

And, in the same spirit of open-ness, yes, Bayer is a client.

But I’ve not drunk the Kool-Aid – a decade as a national newspaper reporter has not worn off yet – so credit where credit’s due. Bayer didn’t duck the debate and, in an industry sector where trust is even harder-won than in business in general, it lived up to its commitments of transparency and Dialogue.