Groups pay PR firm $35,000 to respond to GM wheat find
By JOHN O'CONNELL
The Oregon, Idaho and Washington wheat commissions will pay $7,000 each toward bills accrued by a communications firm hired to help respond to media inquiries about unapproved genetically modified wheat discovered in an Oregon field.
U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers also committed $7,000 each to hire Kansas City-based Global Prairie and have agreed to cover any fees beyond the initial funding allocation by the five organizations.
U.S. Wheat Associates spokesman Steve Mercer said the first $35,000 was exhausted shortly after the May 29 announcement about the GM wheat discovery, and Global Prairie's work continues as the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service hasn't finished its investigation. He declined to estimate how much has already been spent or may be spent on Global Prairie's services.
Mercer said the wheat organizations lack the staff to handle such an enormous flood of media inquiries, which have come from throughout the world. Global Prairie immediately set up a central phone number for media calls and directed each inquiry to the appropriate entity. Mercer said Global Prairie also helped the parties establish an effective common message.
"It's more a role of counsel to bounce ideas off them. Their senior people are experienced in issues like this," Mercer said. "We developed our messages based on what we knew and what we anticipated might happen. They helped us do that, and they helped support some of the local media effort with advice and counsel."
Mercer said South Korea recently announced it will resume importing U.S. western white wheat after suspending imports based on the discovery. Japan, the region's primary customer which also suspended western white wheat imports, should resume purchasing the commodity soon, Mercer said.
"I think we avoided making the situation worse by being able to have the right message," Mercer said. "I think we have a situation now where, thank goodness, there are no more findings of this, and it sure looks like an isolated event."
NAWG spokeswoman Melissa Kessler said her organization had an existing relationship with Global Prairie and will "pay what needs to be paid to continue to use Global Prairie's services."
"This type of issue in our industry is really unprecedented. The amount of attention this has gotten is miles and miles above the requests we normally get on a day-to-day basis," Kessler said, adding communications firms commonly help commodity organizations with additional human resources. "The logistical support has helped us continue to communicate our message."
Global Prairie officials declined to comment, deferring to the wheat organizations.
Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson believes Global Prairie helped the industry hammer home the point that genetically modified food, including the wheat discovered in Oregon, poses no risk.
"This particular trait that was discovered in an Oregon field has been through that (FDA) process, so it is perfectly safe," Jacobson said.
Oregon Wheat Commission Chief Executive Blake Rowe acknowledged Global Prairie's services aren't cheap, but he believes the firm has done a good job.
"Trust me when I say that none of us are really staffed to handle that kind of .. media rush after the USDA announcement came out," Rowe said. "They have credentials and expertise in this arena."