Founded in 1993, and originally known as as Bivings-Woodell Inc., the Bivings Group has been described as the '20th Largest Public Relations Firm in the Washington Metro Area' (Largest Public Relations Firms in the Washington Metro Area, Washington Business Journal April 2000). In addition to Washington DC, it has satellite offices in Brussels and Tokyo, and it previously had offices in Chicago and New York.
The Bivings Group's specialty is online PR - the intersection between IT and lobbying. Its slogan is 'Wired engagement. Global reach. Lasting Impact.' It has, it tells us, developed 'Internet advocacy' campaigns for corporate America since 1996 and serves 'a number of Fortune 100 clients in the biotechnology, chemical, financial, food, consumer products and telecommunications industries.' The plastics industry and 'biotechnology giant Monsanto' are amongst the notable clients 'who have discovered how to make the Internet work for them.' (Corporations Turn to Internet to Champion Political Causes, Chicago Tribune April 3, 2000) Other Bivings' clients have included Dow Chemicals, Kraft Foods, Phillip Morris, BP Amoco, Chlorine Chemistry Council, and Crop Life International.
'The Bivings group has done outstanding work for Monsanto', according to a Monsanto Senior executive quoted by Bivings on its website. Its PR work for the company includes Monsanto's websites (eg Monsanto India, Monsanto UK, Monsanto France) as well as other biotech-related websites such as the biotech knowledge centre - 'a non-commercial website' promoting biotechnology.
According to the PR industry's Holmes Report:
- 'Bivings has worked with the life sciences company to establish websites in the U.S. and Europe to address the growing controversy over genetically modified foods. The sites provide a wealth of information on GM foods and engage the company's critics in a non-confrontational discussion of the issues. ...It received the Advocacy Award from the New Statesman, which described [its work] as being "Interesting. Openness in the face of controversy." '
Elsewhere Bivings' work for Monsanto is described as 'addressing consumer concerns about genetically modified foods in a calm and rational way, even providing access to opposing viewpoints so that-consumers can be better informed.' (Inside PR - 1999 Agency Report Card)
This image of rational open-minded engagement even with the company's critics chimes in well with Monsanto's own commitment, encapsulated in its 'New Monsanto Pledge', to principles such as transparency, dialogue and respect.
However, as The Bivings Group acknowledges on its website, 'Sometimes we win awards. Sometimes only the client knows the precise role we played.' In addition to its publicly acknowledged role, The Bivings Group has helped Monsanto engage in covert online attacks on the company's critics - attacks that have generated considerable controversy and adverse publicity both for Bivings and Monsanto.
The work of Bivings is premised on the power of the Internet : 'Some of the most powerful message delivery tools used today are web-based and grassroots: online message boards, listservs, and web sites.' An article posted on its site states, 'Cyberspace is no longer just for citizen activists. With its savvy Internet lobbying campaigns, Corporate America has gotten off the digital sidelines. Its seasoned Washington lobbyists are turning on its head the assumption that the Internet would aid primarily resource-poor citizens groups allied against corporate interests... business groups are employing the Web to influence public opinion and mount grass-roots-style lobbying campaigns. (Corporations Turn To Internet To Champion Political Causes , Chicago Tribune, April 3, 2000)
Another article talks about 'spinning on-line discussions to favor the positions of companies and interest groups' and 'steering experts to on-line forums on behalf of clients'. The article goes on, 'Without question, these practices have made people taking part in on-line discussions suspicions. Questions about participants' identities and affiliations are becoming more common.' (Incognito Spinmeisters Battle On-Line Critics: When a Company's Product Is Under Fire, One Option is to Plant a Defender in the Chat Room, New York Times, Thursday, October 14, 1999).
The article also notes that Bivings can provide companies with a service involving the long-term monitoring of lists and forums. 'At best, the consultants can strangle misinformation in the electronic cradle. "If participated in properly," said Matt Benson, at Bivings Woodell, "these can be vehicles for shaping emerging issues." '
In an essay on Viral Marketing that appeared in April 2002 on Thebivingsreport.com, Andrew Dimock, head of Bivings' online marketing and promotions division, spelt out how to make covert interventions on a client's behalf, 'There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved. ... Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party.' (Kernels of Truth)
Bivings' covert campaign on behalf of Monsanto has been waged through the use of postings to message boards and listservs under aliases, as well as the creation of a website for a fake agriculural institute. These have been used as means to post attacks on Monsanto's critics without disclosing the company's involvement.
The website of The Center for Food & Agricultural Research (CFFAR) is not currently available, following adverse publicity, but can still be viewed in its archived form. CFFAR presents itself as "a public policy and research coalition" concerned with food and agriculture but, although links to the site were to be found from the websites of US public libraries and university departments, there appears to be no evidence that this organisation ever existed.
The real purpose of the site appears to have been to associate biotech industry critics with "violence" and "terror" via fabricated claims of violence and intimidation. It claims in one article, for example, that Greenpeace engaged in multiple attacks on farms in the UK during which it 'commandeered the farmers' tractors' and 'crashed through fences' in pursuit of farmers' families! One of the goals of the site appears to be to promote an internet-based campaign targeting those with links (particularly funding links ) to groups opposing the biotech industry, lobbying them to break their ties with these groups because of the "violence".
Here's the CFFAR.org domain registration details:
- Registrant: THEODOROV, MANUEL (CFFAR-DOM)
- 8391 Beverly Blvd #107
- LOS ANGELES, CA 90048 US
- Domain Name: CFFAR.ORG
- Administrative Contact, Billing Contact:
- THEODOROV, MANUEL (MTW94) etheodorou@EARTHLINK.NET
- THEODOROV, MANUEL
- 8391 Beverly Blvd #107
- LOS ANGELES, CA 90048
The 'etheodorou' in the e-mail address is clearly different to the contact name. On the following webpage, the name "Emmanuel Theodorou" is listed with other early signatories to a petition supporting agricultural biotechnology launched by Prof CS Prakash. Interestingly, Theodorou's name appears to have been omitted from the current version of the petition.
The following information is provided by Theodorou on the petition page:
- NAME: emmanuel theodorou
- POSITION: director of associations
- ORGANIZATION: bivings woodell, Inc.
- DEPARTMENT: advocacy and outreach
Theodorou is known to have been part of the Monsanto team at Bivings.
Bivings have also been linked to multiple attacks on biotech industry critics posted by a 'Mary Murphy' 'firstname.lastname@example.org' on lists and message boards. Many of these attacks were posted on the AgBioView list, often in coordination with attacks posted by 'Andura Smetacek'. Murphy also appears to have lobbied organisations critical of GM crops to change their stance, to judge by a mail sent to the American Chiropractic Association, which concluded, 'If you want to be taken seriously, you should not make ridiculous claims and you should show respect for the scientists who are developing this important technology.'
The Murphy/Smetacek attacks were to culminate with the publication of an article in the journal Nature by researchers at UC Berkeley showing native maize strains in Mexico had been contaminated by GM maize. Within hours of publication an attack on the researchers was posted on AgBioView by 'Mary Murphy'. She wrote: 'It should be noted that the author of the Nature article, Ignacio H Chapela, is on the board of directors of the Pesticide Action Network North America, an activist group.' Murphy accused Chapela of being 'not exactly what you'd call an unbiased writer'. This was followed up by postings from 'Andura Smetacek' who claimed the research was a product of a conspiracy with 'fear-mongering activists'. Chapela's aim, apparently, was to attack 'biotechnology, free-trade, intellectual property rights and other politically motivated agenda items.' These inflammatory claims were used to launch a campaign of vilification of the researchers and their study on AgBioView and a campaign of pressure on the journal Nature which met with some success.
Smetacek's postings have subsequently been traced back to Monsanto but in her earliest postings Smetacek frequently refers people to the website of the Center for Food and Agricultural Research (CFFAR), ie the site registered to Bivings' Theodorou. This suggests Smetacek, Murphy and CFFAR were all part of a coordinated offensive.
On a website run by two journalists involved in a protracted legal action against Fox TV over its suppression of a report on Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH, 'Murphy' posted a fake Associated Press article. Although Murphy uses 'her' usual hotmail address, other identifying details are shown in brackets on the site :
- Posted by Mary Murphy (bw6.bivwood.com )
- ACTIVISTS CHANGE STANCE ON GMOs AFTER SCIENTISTS GENETICALLY ALTER MARIJUANA (AP)
- June 9, 2000
'bivwood.com' is a domain of The Bivings Group. The bracketed information on the bulletin board, generated from the poster's headers, thus connects Mary Murphy directly to Monsanto's internet PR company. We have also seen an e-mail from Mary Murphy posted via her usual address email@example.com which the headers show was also generated from bw6.bivwood.com .
Between April and June 2002, the British publications The Big Issue, The Ecologist and The Guardian published a series of articles alleging that AgBioView was used as part of a corporate smear campaign against the researchers by Bivings.In a letter published in The Guardian on Wednesday 12 June 2002, Gary Bivings, the President of The Bivings Group, states that, 'The allegations made against the Bivings Group in two recent columns (The fake persuaders, May 14, and Corporate phantoms , May 29) are completely untrue.' Gary Bivings goes on to claim that, 'the Bivings Group has no knowledge of either Mary Murphy or Andura Smetacek'.
However, before Gary Bivings' letter of denial had even been published, Bivings' head of online PR, Todd Zeigler, had confided to the BBC that one of the e-mails in question was sent by someone 'working for Bivings' or 'clients using our services'. The admission, made to BBC TV's news and current affairs programme, Newsnight, was included in their report on the Mexican maize scandal broadcast on 7th June 2002 (see the programme transcript). By including the phrase 'clients using our services' in the admission, Zeigler might appear to be directly implicating the client most directly relevant to the e-mails in question - Monsanto. Subsequent analysis of the headers of early Smetacek mails have borne out the company's direct involvement.
While searching the AgBioView list archive, in early 2002 we got an error message showing that the archive was at the time held on a database on Bivings main apollo server:
- AgBioView E-mail Newsletter Archives Warning: MySQL Connection Failed: Can't connect to MySQL server on 'apollo.bivings.com' (113) in functions.php on line 5
This suggests that Monsanto-Bivings were not just contributing significantly to the tone and direction of the AgBioView list in an undisclosed way through the use of aliases, but were making some of AgBioWorld's content available in a way that masked their involvement. A web design analysis that we commisioned showed that the agbioworld.org website shared striking technical similarities with a site known to have been designed by Bivings, suggesting the same designer had worked on both.
Shortly before the publication of the first article on the Bivings-Monsanto campaign, the AgBioView archive became unavailable and a new archive, hosted by Sparklist, was started. No explanation has ever been given for the closing of the original archive. All Murphy and Smetacek posts stopped around the same time.
Following the appearance of a Guardian article linking Monsanto directly to Andura Smetacek, the CFFAR.org website became unavailable. The article also made reference to Jay Byrne, Monsanto's former Chief Internet Strategist. Interestingly, in a presentation to fellow PR professionals on Monsanto's internet work, Byrne gave CFFAR as an example of the type of site that Monsanto worked to direct people to. Although Byrne no longer works for Monsanto, his PR company V-fluence is based like Monsanto in St Louis and undertakes work for the company. It's Washington office is headed by Richard Levine who was previously part of the Monsanto team at Bivings where he worked side by side with Emmanuel Theodorou.