Unbelievably stupid quote from the agrochemical trade group Mid America Croplife Association, whose members include the likes of Monsanto, Dow, and other manufacturers of farm chemicals (oh, and can you spot the two grammar errors in those three sentences?):
Did you hear the news? The White House is planning to have an “organic” garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama’s and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder.
This quote was in an e-mail to the group’s supporters, enclosing a classic-PR letter to Michelle Obama (or “Mrs. Barack Obama,” as the letter calls her–and for which one blogger took the authors to task), apparently authored by Bonnie McCarvel, Executive Director. You can see both MACA’s letter to Michelle Obama and the cover note here.
As a long-time believer in organic agriculture/sustainability and as someone who eats out of my family’s organic garden and a local organic CSA farm all summer and fall, I was all set to do a rant on the idiocy of this statement. But before jumping in, I Googled around, and decided to focus on some other lessons; that one’s been done about 24,000 times on the blogosphere already.
Lesson 1: Never say or write anything that will come back to haunt you. As MACA found out, you can’t assume an internal memo will stay internal. so say what you mean, mean what you say, and be prepared to back up your assertions.
Lesson 2: Backlash is quick and can be humiliating. Numerous petition campaigns have sprung up supporting Michelle’s desire to grow organic, and the already-shaky credibility of the pesticide industry might take a big hit.
Lesson 3: Old-school PR is no longer enough in a world where journalists no longer stand as intermediaries and gatekeepers between press releases and the public. From a technical PR standpoint, the letter MACA sent to Michelle Obama is quite good: full of reassuring language, on-the-surface well-reasoned arguments about the importance of agriculture, etc. But in a busy, harried world, it doesn’t get to the point; without the controversy, the recipient might not have even figured out (on the quick 30-second scan) that the letter was advocating chemical agriculture. Which hasn’t stopped the blogosphere from picking apart every nuance.
Lesson 4: Controversy and stupidity are just as sexy to the blogosphere as to traditional media. For all the carefully worded letter to Michelle Obama, what stands out (and is getting most of the attention) is the dumb quote in the supporter cover letter about organic gardening making them shudder.
Lesson 5: If the mainstream media wants to stay relevant, it needs to be visible. On three different Google searches on this story, including one for the exact quote from the cover letter, I did not see a single mainstream media result in the top three pages. The closest was a non-journalist’s blog quoted (apparently by a content-scraping robot) on the Wall Street Journal site, which was #28. Blogs and newsletters about gardening, sustainability, and progressive politics were all over this story, but the voice of traditional journalism was not being heard. I was actually beginning to wonder if the whole thing was an urban legend, until I finally tracked down the actual letter, on a local-foods blog. As newspapers are folding every week, as electronic news organizations are laying off staff, people will be asking why we need these trained and theoretically unbiased filters, if they’re AWOL on important stories (or if not AWOL, hidden deep under a rock). This will be a critical question. I’m of the strong opinion that we still need journalists to keep politicians and corporations honest, but journalism’s lack of presence on this and other stories makes that a much tougher argument.