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Communication of R&D to avoid bad press

Pannel discussion of BAC 2014. By order, Juan Carlos Esteban, Ángela Bernardo, Isabel Troytiño, Andrea Guiu and Núria Peláez

Pannel discussion of BAC 2014. By order, Juan Carlos Esteban, Ángela Bernardo, Isabel Troytiño, Andrea Guiu and Núria Peláez

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On July 11 2014, the panel discussion "Keys to Success in biotech companies: The role of communication” was held with the participation of Isabel Troytiño, of Futureco Bioscience, along with Juan Carlos Esteban, of Amgen, Nuria Peláez of AB-Biotics and Andrea Guiu, of the GCR Group, and was moderated by Angela Bernardo, coordinator of the Biotech Annual Congress BAC 2014 and science journalist. 

This roundtable was included in the agenda of the BAC 2014, organized by the Catalan Association of biotechnologists and promoted by the Spanish Federation of Biotechnology,  and intended to address the communication of biotechnology, especially in companies that perform significant investments in R&D. In many cases, the general public does not know what biotechnology means, making it difficult to convey the progress and applications developed by the industry, and how can it provide a significant benefit to society. But are companies interested in communicating R&D and their activity to the public? What are the purposes of communication departments of biotechnology companies?, Why to communicate R&D? 

For starters, companies are looking forward to sell. That does not mean being able to sell their mother. It doesn’t mean anyway that all communication actions from the communication department or cabinet have only direct commercial purposes. Reporting R&D has as many applications as purposes when you prepare contents depending on the target audience. The audiences of business communications are varied and each has assigned different goals. For example, in the case of Futureco Bioscience, advances in R&D on products are disseminated through Ecoletters, which are summaries of the results of trials of efficacy and safety, and provide quality sales support to customers, while advances to the scientific community. 

The consequences of not communicating 

Both Juan Carlos Esteban and Isabel Troytiño said that communication from a biotechnology company is almost a matter of prevention. It's better than not communicating, because the consequences of not doing so could be dire. Especially so close to the health and food consumption sectors. Not saying anything about a new technology that is starting to be used and implemented by society is like making oneself a harakiri, in Troytiño's words, because the society will receive it as an imposition, with many doubts about their risk and the ethics that the developper company provides.  

There are cases of companies that many years ago were pioneers in developing transgenic seeds but didn't invest in dissemination. The consequences of not communicating have been a suspicion about what biotechnology means, and to reduce that technology to only one of its applications, genetic engineering. The activity of Futureco Bioscience SA, though being an agrobiotech company, has nothing to do to do about GMOs. "We don't position ourselves in favour or against genetic engineering, it isn't our market, that's all, and we must make an effort to talk about innovation in agribusinesses and R&D in agricultural biotechnology for crop quality improvement with zero residue, clearly not in association with the genetic modification of plants, but indeed linked, for example, with biocontrol methods, which is also biotechnology, but biotechnology is too close still to its association with GMOs", said Troytiño. 

For Amgen, the outreach efforts are important, but not always possible. By law the disclosure of medicines, for example, in social networks, is restricted in Europe. Not so in the USA. Among many of the things that Amgen has done and developed, one of them is erythropoietin, or EPO, a drug widely used in treatments for anemia, kidney disease and chemotherapy cycles. But the EPO is best known for being the star of sports doping cases. Transmit other uses and benefits of EPO, the most widespread and used part of preventing a public that ultimately is very powerful. Communication is a preventive measure and has lots of image preparation, put in context, and explanation. Ensures Esteban. Anticipate to explain before jumping to conclusions or opinions are far from reality for the audience implausible messages. 

The case of Andrea Guiu, however, is different. The company where she directs communication, GCR Group, is a chemical one, and its activity is the production of plastics. "If you write the 'plastic' in Google Images, the first image is a turtle suffocated by the plastic packaging of beverage cans." The communication in this sector is complicated because there is no tradition of worrying about it. Plastic, as all synthetic materials, organic or not, or despite it can also be respectful to the environment, has also bad press. To give different messages and talk about innovation in a sector where there hasn't been so much communication about its advances and developments requires effort. Social media is also a challenge in this sector.

To Guiu, who had worked in the science section of the newspaper Público.es, and more used to work in the media and write popular articles on advances in science and technology, "Science journalism is not the same as corporate communication of technology company". The aims are different. The actions of the company are directed from a defined strategy that can bring benefits to the company, either through investors or customers, added Juan Carlos Esteban. Despite this disclosure, dissemination actions are important. Preparing contents for non direct client audiences, but users, and society at the end, is very important also, as pointed Peláez, talking about initiatives such as the use of videos, a case of success from her communication department, estimated by the number of views on the Internet. 

In and out 

Angela Bernardo asked the panelists if they thought communication departments are or not firefighters, and asked what they thought of the case of the pharma company, in which the manager stated that they don't produce drugs for poor people, argument to justify why they don't sell drugs in India. 

Are cabinets of communication firefighters? Yes, and no. To reverse the opinion or public scandal that generate statements like this, in which the ethics of the company and its lack of commitment to global social challenges fall to the ground, you have to work hard, but who must explain it must be the manager who made ​​that statement. Explain, apologize, Troytiño said. Esteban added that this is the living proof that the company staff, and especially the positions of responsibility they will have to appear in public events, to know what is appropriate to say and when is better to say nothing. Diplomacy is very important. 

Do scientists and executives of technology companies know how to communicate? Peláez was the first to deny it, although there are a few exceptions. To Peláez is important that scientists and managers have communication skills. Although they have enough with their work, and in fact communication musn't be their job, but the one of communication officers, it would help to have some knowledge in this area to manage situations and transmit correctly in some contexts. Not only communication skills, but also the use of social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn, that not only serve to disseminate information of the company, but also to network with people of the industry, and as a source of content and activities of virtual communities related to the latest developments in the sector, contributed Troytiño.

Another important thing, that all the speakers agreed on, is that communication is not only spread or give outdoor image. The cohesion between the teams of the company is also important through internal communication among workers. Workers of the company should be the first in knowing the company news. And what steps do you take in this sense? asked Roi Villar from the audience. Speakers answered that E-mail lists, Intranet, communications of continuous improvement due to ISO rules or ERP. 

Business Interests with or against the company's interests?

Companies are not sisters of charity, and although communicating science or knowledge is something beautiful, there is always an interest back, Esteban said, that ashore the background of efforts to communicate of technology companies. This opinion was consistent across the panelists, but that does not mean that the company efforts are not also to offer a service to society, as  journalism and communication are social services, Troytiño said. Not exempt, for sure, and also communicators may like more this part, the commitment to society, as expressed Guiu personally. Many contents are prepared according to the type of audience and objectives thereof, said Peláez, but there is always a goal. Altruism is not without purpose either.

Where there is a business opportunity there is a social demand. The company responds to that demand and hence provides goods and services. Communicating technology that meets that need is essential basically because behind the business opportunity is also an opportunity to profit. Not communicating the social importance of technological developments can be experienced from the public as an opportunity to profit "at the expense of" the society, not based on its service to society. Knowing what do they pay for and what is being purchased is fundamental.

Therefore, although the business interest is to sell, the end user, the customer needs to know. The business and social interest have to go hand in hand, and in a world where at least there are three corruption scandals in the news per day by companies and governments, from the communication offices prevention of opacity is critical. 

The challenge of Corporate Social Responsibility

Returning to the case of the statements of the pharma company, David Gallardo, from the audience, asked whether it was positive or not the generation of such a stir, even if negative. As the folk said, "they can speak well or badly, but they speak," said Guiu. To Troytiño it was not as positive. That may make some of your customers end up giving back by not wanting to be accomplices, buying you, that attitude. But it did not impact negatively on the company's sales, reported Esteban. No... for the moment. But when the CSR is no longer a discrete trend that some companies take and becomes a must, things will change a lot, responded Troytiño. 

CSR standards include taking measures to ensure compliance with human rights, anti-corruption and the promotion of cooperation in all stakeholders, as relationships of the company, from customers to suppliers and society. From the responsible consumption of not selling or buying anything to companies that exploit child labor. For example. With the CSR in the future it will be difficult being an accomplice or running a dense veil over statements like that. Yes, but the reality is that the pharma company does not work for India, sell or place in India. Is not their market, Esteban said. We'll see, many things will happen when CSR is widespread implemented in businesses.

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