Part 2 of an interview with John Stauber, editor of PR Watch
by Derrick Jensen
Australian academic Alex Carey once wrote that ‘the 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.’ In societies like ours, corporate propaganda is delivered through advertising and public relations. Most people recognise that advertising is propaganda. We understand that whoever paid for an ad wants us to think or feel a certain way, vote for a certain candidate or purchase a certain product. Public relations, on the other hand, is much more insidious.
Because it’s disguised as information, we often don’t realise we are being influenced by public relations. But this multibillion-dollar transnational industry’s campaigns affect our private and public lives every day. PR firms that most people have never heard of – such as Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, and Ketchum – are working on behalf of myriad powerful interests, from dictatorships to the cosmetic industry, manipulating public opinion, policy-making and the flow of information.
As editor of the US investigative journal PR Watch, John Stauber exposes how public relations works and helps people to understand it. He hasn’t always been a watchdog journalist.
For more than 20 years he worked for various causes: the environment, peace, social justice, neighbourhood concerns. Eventually, it dawned on him that public opinion on every issue he cared about was being managed by influential, politically connected PR operatives with nearly limitless budgets.
‘Public relations is a perversion of the democratic process,’ he says. ‘I knew I had to fight it.’ He started PR Watch. In 1995, Common Courage Press published a book by Stauber and his colleague Sheldon Rampton titled Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry.
I interviewed Stauber at home in Madison, Wisconsin.
Jensen How is a propaganda war waged?
Stauber The key is invisibility. Once propaganda becomes visible, it’s less effective. Public relations is effective in manipulating opinion – and thus public policy – only if people believe that the message covertly delivered by the PR campaign is not propaganda at all but simply common sense or accepted reality. For instance, there is a consensus within the scientific community that global warming is real and that the burning of fossil fuels is a major cause of the problem. But to the petroleum industry, the automobile industry, the coal industry and other industries from fossil-fuel consumption, this is merely an inconvenient message that needs to be ‘debunked’ because it could lead to public policies that reduce their profits. So, with the help of PR firms, these vested interests create and fund industry front groups such as the Global Climate Coalition.
The coalition then selects, promotes and publicises scientists who proclaim global warming a myth and characterise hard evidence of global climate change as ‘junk science’ being pushed by self-serving environmental groups out to scare the public for fund-raising purposes.
Another such industry front group is the Hudson Institute, a prominent far-right think tank espousing the view that global climate change will be beneficial. The Hudson Institute is funded by the American Trucking Association, the Ford Motor Company, Allison Engine Company, Bombardier, and McDonnell Douglas, among others. The Global Climate Coalition and the Hudson Institute are routinely quoted in the news media, where they promote their message of ‘Don’t worry, burn lots of oil, gas, and coal.’
In order to confuse the public and manipulate opinion and policy to their advantage, corporations spend billions of dollars a year hiring PR firms to cultivate the press, discredit their critics, spy on and co-opt citizens’ groups and use polls to find out what images and messages will resonate with target audiences.
For obvious reasons, public relations is a secretive industry. PR firms don’t like to reveal their clients. Some of them, though, can be identified. Here’s a list of just a tiny fraction of the clients represented by Burson-Marsteller, the world’s largest PR firm: broadcaster NBC, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, Trump Enterprises, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in Angola, Occidental Petroleum, American Airlines, the state of Alaska, Genentech, the Ford Motor Company, the Times Mirror Company, MCI, the National Restaurant Association, Coca-Cola, the British Columbia timber industry, Dow Croning, General Electric, Hydro-Quebec, AT&T, Monsanto, British Telecom, Chevron, DuPont, IBM, Warner-Lambert, Visa, Seagram, SmithKline Beecham, Reebok, Proctor & Gamble, Glaxo, Campbell’s Soup, the Olympics, Nestle, Motorola, Gerber, Eli Lilly, Caterpillar, Sears, Beretta, Pfizer, Metropolitan Life, McDonnell Douglas, and the governments of Kenya, Indonesia, Argentina, Italy, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Mexico, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.
Jensen That list encompasses everything from biotechnology to genocide to jet-skis.
Stauber In its latest reporting year, Burson-Marsteller claimed more than a quarter of a billion dollars in net fees from its clients. And it’s only one of a number of PR firms owned by the Young & Rubicam advertising agency. Other top 10 PR firms include Hill & Knowlton, Shandwick, Porter/Novelli, Fleishman-Hillard, Edelman, and Ketchum – companies that most of us have never heard of, but whose influence we’ve all felt.
Burson-Marsteller alone has 2 200 PR flacks – that’s slang for a public-relations practitioner – in more than 30 countries. In its promotional materials, the firm says its international operations are ‘linked together electronically and philosophically to deliver a single standard of excellence.’ It claims that ‘the role of communications is to manage perceptions which motivate behaviours that create business results’ and that its mission is to help clients ‘manage issues by influencing – in the right combination – public attitude, public perceptions, public behaviour, and public policy.’
Jensen Why don’t we read more about these hidden manipulations in the news?
Stauber Primarily because the mainstream, corporate news media are dependent on public relations. Half of everything in the news actually originates from a PR firm. If you’re a lazy journalist or editor, it’s easy to simply regurgitate the press releases and stories that come in for free from PR firms.
Remember, the media’s primary source of income is the more than $100-billion a year corporations spend on advertising. The PR firms are owned by advertising agencies, so the same companies that are producing billions of dollars in advertising are the ones pitching stories to the news media, cultivating relationships with reporters and controlling reporters’ access to the executives and companies they represent. In fact, of the 160 000 or so PR flacks in the US, maybe a third began their careers as journalists. Who better to manipulate the media than former reporters and editors? It is said that professional PR flacks actually outnumber real working journalists in the US. [Compare South African PR consultants Sussens Mann Ogilvy & Mather’s secret advice to Anglovaal’s directors on how to defend the indefencible at Crusader Life, reported in nose19. – ed.]
Jensen How does politics figure in this equation?
Stauber Public relations is now inseparable from the business of lobbying, creating public policy, and getting candidates elected to public office. The PR industry just might be the single most powerful political institution in the world. It expropriates and exploits the democratic rights of millions on behalf of big business by fooling the public about the issues.
When Sheldon Rampton and I wrote Toxic Sludge Is Good forYou, our publisher said, ‘This book is going to depress readers. You need to offer a solution or they’ll feel even more disempowered.’ But there is no simple solution. Propaganda will always be used by those who can afford it. That’s how the powerful maintain control. In defence, the rest of us need to develop our crimical-thinking capabilities and maintain a strong commitment to reinvigorating democracy.
Jensen But if it’s not illegal and everyone uses it, what’s wrong with public relations?
Stauber There’s nothing wrong with much of what is done in public relations, like putting out press releases, calling members of the press, arguing a position or communicating a message. Everyone, myself included, who’s trying to get an idea across, market a product or influence other citizens uses technicques that fit the definition of PR.
Today, however, public relations has become a powerful, hidden medium available only to wealthy individuals, big corporations, governments and government agencies because of its high cost. And the purpose of these campaigns is not to facilitate democracy or promote social good but to increase power and profitability for the clients paying the bills. This overall management of public opinion and policy by the few is completely destructive of democracy.
In Washington, issues are no longer simply lobbied. They are ‘managed’ by a triad composed of (1) public-relations experts from firms such as Burson-Marsteller, (2) business lobbyists, who bankroll politicians, write legislation, and are often former politicians themselves and (3) phoney grass-roots organisations – I call them ‘astroturf groups’ – that the PR industry has created to give the appearance of public support for their clients’ agendas.
Jensen How do people in the PR industry respond to these charges?
Stauber In private, they’ll invariably tell you, ‘You’re right, only it’s even worse.’ But in public they say, ‘What are you, against freedom of speech? Corporations and the wealthy have a right to make their voices heard and that’s what we do. This is just democracy in action.’
Jensen But how do they defend promoting the interests of torturers and murderers?
Stauber PR executives compare themselves to lawyers. They say, ‘People come to us with a need to be represented in the arena of public affairs, and we have an obligation to represent them.’
Jensen To lie for them.
Stauber To ‘manage issues and public perception’ is how they would put it.
Jensen How did all this come about?
Stauber The PR industry is a product of the early 20th century. It grew out of what was then the world’s largest propaganda campaign, waged by Woodrow Wilson’s administration to get the American public to support US entry into World War I. At that time, the country was much more isolationist than today. A huge ocean separated us from Europe and most Americans didn’t want to get dragged into what was seen as Europe’s war.
In fact, citizens are almost always reluctant to go to war. Take the Gulf War of 1991. We now know that the royal family of Kuwait hired as many as 20 public-relations, law and lobbying firms in Washington, DC, to convince Americans to support that war. It paid one PR firm alone, Hill & Knowlton $10.8-million. Hill & Knowlton set up an ‘astroturf’ – fake grass-roots – group called ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ to make it appear as if there were a large grass-roots constituency in support of the war. The firm also produced and distributed dozens of ‘video news releases’ that were aired as news stories by TV stations and networks around the world. It was Hill & Knowlton that arranged the infamous phoney Congressional hearing at which the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, appearing anonymously, falsely testified to having witnessed Iraqi soldiers pulling scores of babies from incubators in a hospital and leaving them to die. Her testimony was a complete fabrication, but everyone from Amnesty International to President George Bush repeated it over and over as proof of Saddam Hussein’s evil. Sam Zakhem, a former US ambassador to Bahrain, funnelled another $7.7-million into the propaganda campaign through two front groups, the Freedom Task Force and the Coalition for Americans at Risk, to pay for TV and newspaper ads and to keep on payroll a stable of 50 speakers for pro-war rallies.
‘If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses without them knowing it’
The Hill & Knowlton executives running the show were Craig Fuller, a close friend and adviser to President Bush, and Frank Mankiewicz – better known as a friend of the Kennedys and former president of National Public Radio – who managed the media masterfully, particularly television: a University of Massachusetts study later showed that the more TV people watched, the fewer facts they actually knew about the situation in the Persian Gulf and the more they supported the war.
But back to the history of the industry. After the Wilson administration succeeded in getting the public behind World War I, public-relations practitioners who’d been involved in the campaign, such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, began looking for business clients.
The tactics of invisible persuasion that they’d honed working for the War Department were put to use on behalf of the tobacco, oil and other industries. And with each success, the public-relations industry grew. Tobacco propaganda has surely been the most successful, longest-running, and deadliest public-relations campaign in history.
To his credit, Edward Bernays later recognised the deadly effects of tobacco and condemned colleagues who worked for tobacco companies.
Bernays was surely one of the most amazing and influential characters of the 20th century. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and helped to popularise Freudianism in the US. Later, he used his relation to Freud to promote himself. And from his uncle’s psychoanalysis techniques, Bernays developed a scientific method of managing behaviour, to which he gave the name ‘public relations’. Believing that democracy needed wise and hidden manipulators, Bernays was proud to be a propagandist and wrote in his book Propaganda: ‘If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.’ He called this the ‘engineering of consent’ and proposed that ‘those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country ... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons .. who pull the wires which control the public mind.'’ It appears not to have dawned on Bernays until the 1930s that his science of propaganda could also be used to subvert democracy and promote fascism. That was when journalist Karl von Weigand told Bernays that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels had read all of his books and possessed an even better library on propaganda than Bernays did.
Jensen How did the tobacco industry use public relations to promote its products?
Stauber Prior to the 1950s, the industry actually hired doctors to promote tobacco’s ‘health benefits’. It calms the nerves, soothes the throat and keeps you thin, they said. We have Bernays, Ivy Lee and other early PR experts to thank for that. Then, when tobacco industry launched what’s called a ‘crisi-management campaign’, primarily under the leadership of John Hill of Hill & Knowlton.
Hill’s goal was to fool the public into believing that the industry could responsibly and scientifically investigate the issue itself and, if it found a problem, somehow make tobacco products safe. What really happened, we all know, is that the industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding and publicising ‘research’ purporting to prove tobacco doesn’t cause cancer and, at the same time, created one of the most powerful political lobbies ever to prevent tobacco regulation.
Jensen This strategy of funding biased or phoney research to support corporate profitability seems ubiquitous: the timber industry funds forestry schools, for example, where they teach that logging is needed to ‘improve forest health’.
Stauber Another proven strategy is polling the public to find what messages will resonate with people’s values and desires. If they find, for example, that women have a desire to be free from male domination, the strategy might be to market cigarettes as ‘torches of liberty’, as Bernays did in the 1920s, when he arranged for attractive New York City debutantes to walk in the Easter Fashion Parade waving lit cigarettes. That single publicity stunt broke the social taboo against women smoking and doubled the tobacco industry’s market overnight. [Now that cigarette ads have been banned in South Africa, watch out in coming months for all the models elegantly smoking at fashion parades and celebrity events, and for the smoking models and stars in Cosmo, Style and GQ’s fashion and society pages. – Ed.]
It’s even better if you can put your message in the mouth of someone the public trusts. This is called the ‘third-party technique’ and was also pioneered by Bernays. Surveys show that scientists are widely trusted, so the public-relations industry hired ‘scientific experts’ to say things beneficial to the industry’s clients. PR firms also deliver messages through journalists, doctors and others who appear to be independent, trustworthy sources of information.
Jensen What we’re really talking about is corporations promoting death for profit.
Stauber The most powerful PR firms, such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, often work for brutal dictatorships. Most Washington lobbying firms are willing to represent dictatorships.
Jensen How do these people live with themselves?
Stauber Apparently, very well. They have prestigious positions, nice wardrobes, six-figure salaries and expensive homes. They hobnob with celebrities and politicians and corporate executives. They tell themselves that if they didn’t do it, someone else would. Some PR flacks invoke the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was just following orders.’
The second part of this interview will be in our next issue.
Derrick Jensen’s latest book is A Language Older Than Words.
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