Rising public concern -- over the potential environmental, health and societal hazards of nanotechnology -- threatens to make the issue into a repeat of the GM debate. Potentially trillions of pounds are thus at stake for the many diverse industries involved in the new technology. The PR agency flies, who so spectacularly failed to save GM crops, are beginning to buzz around this new honeypot, sensing a very lucrative feast. They are offering their clients assistance with two key objectives: to maintain governments' evident enthusiasm for nanotech and to win public acceptance of it.
The Nanotech Association (NA), launched in February 2005, brings together a number of key companies from small start-ups to large multinationals. They include: Smith & Nephew and Oxonica. For an industry body with the aim of 'informing and promoting the uses of nanotechnologies' it was a whisper of a launch. And nothing seems to have been heard of it since. Even Nanoforum (see below) failed to print the NA's launch press release until seven months later.
The NA appears to have been set up by Lexington public relations, whose Bernard Marantelli created the GM crops industry body, the Agricultural Biotech Association. Marantelli apparently set up the NA, but has now left to study for an MBA. Perhaps his association with GM crops has been found to be embarrassing. Lexington was extremely reluctant to discuss its involvement with the NA, but did confirm that it had worked as the secretariat for the NA, although it is 'not currently' involved. We did however have to define the word 'involved' in order to get this comment. Press contacts for the NA are now handled by Kevin Matthews of Oxonica, and Peter Arnold of Smith & Nephew. We were unable to contact either of them before going to press. We assume from the NA's low profile either that it is primarily involved in government relations and/or behind-the-scenes press work, or possibly that it is collapsing.
The confident public face of nanotechnology seems to be the Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN), based at the University of Stirling Innovation Park. IoN is a busy networking hub working with governments, universities, researchers, and companies worldwide as well as providing public and press information. It has spawned several different networks in the space of a few years.
Most recently the Institute launched the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance (ENTA) a pan-European body created 'to represent the interests of nanotechnology businesses across Europe. ENTA will act to bridge gaps between governments, science and industry policy makers and business'. ENTA is supported by Procter and Gamble, BP International, Thomas Swan & Co., Nexia Solutions, and Imerys, amongst other companies.
The NanoMicroClub is another IoN network which provides support for pre-start-up/spin-out, and early stage nano- and micro- technology enterprises. The Club offers advice on everything from commercialisation to public relations as well as providing a forum for networking with others in the field. IoN's public relations is handled by its 'Nanoforum' information network. Funded by the EU, nanoforum provides an up to date news service (with over 1600 articles published so far), research and comprehensive links to other nano-related organisations and sites. Amongst other things IoN's business development manager, Del Stark, has found time to attend trainings organised by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), where eager PR flacks can find out about the 'real issues' around nanotech.
One of the more prominent PR companies to be touting for business in the sector is Regester Larkin, a specialist in crisis and issues management. Regester Larkin has a long involvement with biotech, amongst other controversial companies, and has worked for GM front group the Bioindustry Association, Glaxo Smithkline and 3M. For £5000 per day the agency provides media training for companies in which it will help 'develop' a 'position' on their activities and teach how to deal with media interviews. RL also uses current or former BBC, CNN or Sky journalists in media training. A guide to 'Risk Issues and Crisis Management', by Mike Regester and Judy Larkin published on the CIPR's web site, also recommends building 'a profile of the working methods and organisation of pressure groups'.
Whilst much PR manoeuvering is by its nature opaque and kept out of the public eye, certain key messages and approaches can be divined from what information is available:
- The industry will seek to portray nanotechnology as crucial for economic and technological progress
- Fabulous new materials, breakthroughs in medical research, etc. will be talked up, whilst wild speculation about the 'grey goo' and other 'myths' will be 'debunked'
- 'The spectre of the great GM debate' will be avoided if at all possible. Expect to see industry groups drawing parallels to far less controversial technologies, e.g. mobile phones
- The nanotech industry seeks to present a sincere concern about fears of potential toxicity (whilst government obligingly fails to do anything much about it) but will try to minimise discussion of nanotech products already on the market