Fenton Communications is a prominent public relations firm headquartered in New York city. Founded by progressive activist David Fenton in 1982, the company describes itself as a “social change communications agency,” whose goal is to “make the world a better place.”
Fenton’s client list reads like a lineup of anti-science all-stars, including NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the organic food corporations that finance their work, like Stonyfield Farm and Ben & Jerry’s. Fenton has been harshly criticized by the scientific community for helping activists distort science and run scare campaigns aimed at unsuspecting consumers.
A History of Scare Mongering
In 1989, a hyperbolic 60 minutes report warned Americans that the apples they were consuming were tainted with a cancer-causing pesticide called Alar. The source for this claim was a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, which was authored by unqualified NRDC staffers and not subjected to peer-review by experts. The report also contradicted every previous study that looked at Alar, as well as data analyzed by the U.S. EPA.
Despite these crippling limitations, a successful PR campaign temporarily scared Americans out of consuming apples, and Fenton Communications was the firm behind the campaign. It was later revealed that Fenton had negotiated to give 60 minutes exclusive rights to the story, then arranged follow-up media coverage to keep the Alar scare alive. This was all done before the NRDC’s report was released. David Fenton bragged in an interview that this fabricated assault on a safe pesticide was just a fundraising scheme for NRDC.
The Alar scare is a decades-old story, but it serves as a template for the unethical PR work that Fenton continues to do for its clients in the environmentalist movement.
Fenton: Publicists to the “Good Guys”
Despite Fenton’s history of dishonesty, the PR firm’s leadership proudly told the New York Times in 2o14 that they’re the publicists for “the good guys.” The Times offered no push back, naturally, but these so-called good guys are political activists and corporations that lie to consumers and smear academics who challenge their propaganda.
Beginning in 2011, for example, Fenton partnered with Stoneyfield Organics to launch the “Just Label It” campaign, an effort to drum up support for state ballot initiatives that would have forced food producers to label trasngenic food. As with the Alar campaign, the effort to label transgenic food is based on bad science that has been rejected by every credible expert. Despite Fenton’s best PR efforts, the “Just Label It” campaign was a massive failure. None of the organic industry’s food labeling initiatives passed, largely because of counter-efforts organized by pro-science groups.
A Conspiracy to Counter a Conspiracy
Industry front groups like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) complain that Monsanto hires PR firms to help them win public support. These efforts, OCA says, are evidence of a corporate conspiracy designed to mislead the public about the safety of biotechnology. OCA fails to mention, of course, that the organic industry follows the exact same playbook.
The “Just Label It” campaign is operated by Organic Voices, another Fenton client and front group financed by Stoneyfield and other major organic industry players. These same corporations donate millions to OCA, which in turn finances non-profit groups that attack scientists who study and promote plant biotechnology. OCA has also worked directly with Fenton to stir up panic about transgenic corn, which the Centers for Disease Control summarily debunked.
To give this PR effort a veneer of scientific legitimacy, Fenton recruits scientists and journalists who will go into the public square and repeat the organic industry’s talking points. Public records requests have not yet revealed who all these academics and media figures are, but a series of popular opinion pieces, published around the same time and making the same rehashed arguments, suggest a few plausible candidates.
Fenton established two affiliated organizations for the purposes of recruiting biased academic talent and promoting their work: The Science Communication Network and Environmental Media Services. Services provided by these two sister organizations include website hosting and media promotion for outlets that faithfully produce politically progressive science commentary. The two organizations also share key staff members.