The secret battle for the public mind
of an Interview with John Stauber, Editor of PR Watch
By Derrick Jensen
Most people recognise that advertising is propaganda. 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. 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. 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.’ This is the second part of Derrick Jensen’s interview with Stauber. The first appeared in nose31.
Jensen: How did you get started doing this sort of work?
Stauber: Ironically, I owe my inspiration to Burson-Marsteller, because it was after I caught them infiltrating and spying on a meeting of public-interest activists that I decided to start PR Watch. In 1990, I organised a meeting of citizen groups opposed to the Monsanto company’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, called rBGH. Surveys of consumers and farmers showed overwhelming opposition to injecting a hormonal drug into cows to force more milk out of them. Unfortunately, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Monsanto on public relations and on influencing the Clinton administration, rBGH was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993 and is now in wide use. What’s worse, milk and dairy products produced with the use of the drug are not labeled, which means consumers have almost no way of avoiding it.
Back in 1990, when rBGH was still just a billion-dollar gleam in Monsanto’s corporate eye, I organized a meeting of the Consumers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Humane Farming Association, and other groups. Shortly before the meeting, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as ‘Lisa Ellis, a member of the Maryland Citizens Consumer Council’. She said she’d heard of the meeting and asked if her organization could send a representative; it wanted to make sure schoolchildren could avoid rBGH-produced milk. I said they were certainly welcome, and a woman named Diane Moser attended our meeting. A few months later, a reporter told me that Monsanto was bragging about having placed a spy in our meeting. A little sleuthing revealed that the Maryland Citizens Consumer Council was a ruse, and that both Diane Moser and Lisa Ellis were working for Burson-Marsteller on the Monsanto account. A former employee of that firm later told me that it routinely sends new employees into deceptive and unethical situations to see if they’re willing to be dishonest on behalf of its clients. I felt invaded and swore I would find out what kind of scum went around spying this way. Who was Burson-Marsteller? Through the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to obtain thousands of pages of internal documents from their PR campaign. I found I was up against one of the largest, most effecitve, best-funded, best-connected public-relations campaigns in history.
Few people even knew the battle was going on. Many of those who did hear about the drug heard about it under a different name. A 1986 survey done for the dairy industry – which has worked hand in hand with Monsanto to promote rBGH – showed that the term ‘bovine growth hormone’ caused consumers to worry, so the industry began calling the drug bovine somatotropin, which is Latin for ‘growth hormone’.
Jensen: I’ve seen the same thing happen in logging. Timber-industry and Forest Service representatives try not to use the term ‘old growth’, preferring instead to call ancient trees ‘overmature’ or ‘decadent’. There are also a number of euphemisms for clear-cuts; my favourite is ‘temporary meadows’.
Stauber: If you can control the terms of the debate, you’ll win every time. If you read something about bovine somatotropin, a ‘natural protein’ used to enhance yields in dairy farming, your response will likely be more positive than if you read about injecting dairy cows with a genetically engineered growth hormone.
Jensen: How do they get to planting these terms in news stories?
Stauber: Journalism is in drastic decline. It’s become a lousy profession. The commercial media are greed-driven enterprises dominated by a dozen transnational companies. Newsroom staffs have been downsized. Much of what you see on national and local TV news is actually news releases prepared by PR firms and given free to TV stations. Academics who study public relations report that half or more of what appears in newspapers and magazines is lifted verbatim from press releases generated by PR firms.
The wheels of media are greased with billions a year in corporate advertising. The advertisers’ power to dictate the content of what we see as news and entertainment grows every year. After all, the real purpose of the media as a business is to deliver an audience to advertisers. [E.g. see Cape Times management quoted on the subject in nose13 (page 8). – Ed.]
Journalists find themselves squeezed between advertising money coming in the back door and press releases coming in the front.
Some PR companies – such as Carma International and Video Monitoring Service – specialize in monitoring journalists and evaluating stories which were favourable to corporate interests, who the reporters were, who their bosses are, and so on.
The PRs then cultivate relationships with cooperative reporters while punishing those whose reporting is critical. Certain PR firms will provide dossiers on reporters so that, between the time a reporter makes an initial phone call and the time a company’s vice-president of communications calls back, the company will have found out the name of the reporter’s supervisor, all about the reporter’s family and background, and other pertinent information.
Jensen: We often hear charitable giving referred to as ‘good public relations’. How does this work?
Stauber: Corporations want us to believe that they are concerned, moral ‘corporate citizens’ – whatever that means. So businesses pump millions into charities and nonprofit organizations to deceive us into thinking that they care and are making things better.
On top of that, corporate charity can buy the tacit cooperation of organizations that might otherwise be expected to criticize corporate policies. Some PR firms specialize in helping corporations to defeat activists, and co-optation is one of their tools.
Some years ago, in a speech to clients in the cattle industry, Ron Ducin, senior vice-president of the PR firm Mongoven, Biscoe, and Duckin (which represents probably a quarter of the largest corporations in the world), outlined his firm’s basic divide-and-conquer strategy for defeating any social-change movement. Activists, he explained, fall into three basic categories: radicals, idealists, and realists. The first step in his strategy is to isolate and marginalize the radicals. They’re the ones who see the inherent structural problems that need remedying if indeed a particular change is to occur. To isolate them, PR firms will try to create a perception in the public mind that people advocating fundamental solutions are terrorists, extremists, fearmongers, outsiders, communists, or whatever. After marginalizing the radicals, the PR firm then identifies and ‘educates’ the idealists – concerned and sympathetic members of the public – by convincing them that the changes advocated by the radicals would hurt people. The goal is to sour the idealists on the idea of working with the radicals, and instead get them working with the realists.
Realists, according to Duchin, are people who want reform but don’t really want to upset the status quo; big public-interest organizations that rely on foundation grants and corporate contributions are a prime example. With the correct handling, Duchin says, realists can be counted on to cut a deal with industry.
Jensen: Why does this strategy keep working?
Stauber: In part, because we don’t have a watchdog press that aggressively investigates and exposes PR lies and deceptions. Its success is also a reflection of the sorry state of democracy in our society. On a deeper level, we all want to believe these lies. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find ourselves living in a functioning democracy? To be truly represented by our so-called Representatives? Not to have to worry about the destruction of the biosphere or the safety of the water we drink and the food we eat? I think we all buy in because we want to believe things aren’t as bad as they really are.
The reality is, though, that our political and social environment is corrupt and deeply dysfunctional. Structural reforms must be made in our political and economic system in order to assert the rights of citizens over corporations. But since big corporations dominate the media, we’re not going to hear about this on network news or in the New York Times. The beginning of the solution is for people to recognize that it’s not enough to send cheques in response to direct-mail solicitations from public-interest groups. We need to become real citizens and get personally involved in reclaiming our country.
Big environmental organizations, socially responsible investment funds, and other groups perpetuate the myth that if we just write cheques to them, they’ll heal the environment, reform the corrupt campaign-finance system, protect our freedom of speech, and reign in corporate power. This is a dangerous falsehood, because it implies that we don’t have to sweat and struggle to make democracy work. It’s so much easier to write a cheque for $25 than it is to integrate our concerns agbout critical issues into our daily lives and organize with our neighbours for democracy.
Many so-called public-interest organizations have become big businesses, multinational nonprofit corporations. The PR industry knows this and exploits it well with the type of co-optation strategies that Duchin recommends.
Jensen: This seems especially true of big environmental groups.
Stauber: E. Bruce Harrison, one of the most effective public-relations practitioners in the business, knows that all too well. He’s made a lucrative career out of helping polluting companies defeat environmental regulations while simultaneously giving the companies a ‘green’ public image. In the industry, they call him the ‘Dean of Green’. As a longtime opponent of the environmental movement, Harrison has developed some interesting insights into its failures.
He says: ‘The environmental movement is dead. It really died in the last fifteen years, from success.’ I think he’s correct. What he means is that, in the eighties and nineties, environmentalism became a big business, and organizations like the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, became competing multi-million-dollar bureaucracies. These organizations, Harrison says, seem much more interested in ‘the business of greening’ than in fighting for fundamental social change.
For instance, the Environmental Defence Fund (whose executive director makes a quarter of a million dollars a year) cut a deal with McDonald’s that was probably worth hundreds of millions in publicity to the fast-food giant.
Jensen: How so?
Stauber: After years of being hammered by grass-roots environmentalists for everything from deforestation to inhumane farming practices to contributing to a throwaway culture, McDonald’s finally relented on something: it did away with its styrofoam clamshell hamburger containers. But before the company did this, it entered into a partnership with the Environmental Defence Fund and gave that group credit for the change. Both sides ‘won’ in the ensuing PR lovefest. McDonald’s took one little step in response to grass-roots activists, and the Environmental Defence Fund claimed a major victory.
Another problem is that big green groups have virtually no accountability to the many thousands of individuals who provide them with money. Meanwhile, the grass-roots environmental groups are starved of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are raised every year by these massive bureaucracies. Over the past two decades, they’ve turned the enviornmental movement’s grass-roots base of support into little more than a list of donors they hustle for money via direct-mail appeals and telemarketing.
It’s getting even worse, because now corporations are directly funding groups like the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation. Corporate executives now sit on the boards of some of these groups. PR executive Leslie Dach, for instance, of the rabidly anti-environmental Edelman PR firm, is on the Audubon Society’s board of directors. Meanwhile, his PR firm has helped lead the ‘wise use’ assault on environmental regulation.
Corporations and public-relations firms hire so-called activists and pay them large fees to work against the public interest. For instance, Carol Tucker Foreman was once the executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, a group that itself takes corporate dollars. Now she has her own lucrative consulting firm and works for companies like Monsanto and Proctor & Gamble, pushing rBGH and promoting the fake fat Olestra, which has been linked to bowel problems. She also works with other public-interest pretenders like the Washington DC-based organization Public Voice, which takes money from agri-business and food interests and should truthfully be called Corporate Voice. (Compare the case of Isobel Jones, once SA’s leading consumer watchdog, but who is today PR for ABSA, Shoprite and TV marketer, Verimark. – Ed.)
Jensen: It seems the main thrust of the PR business is to get the public to ignore atrocities.
Stauber: Tom Buckmaster, the chairman of Hill & Knowlton, once stated explicitly the single most important rule of public relations: ‘Managing the outrage is more important than managing the hazard.’ From a corporate perspective, a hazard isn’t a problem if you’re making money off it. It’s only when the public becomes aware and active that you have a problem, or, rather, a PR crisis in need of management.
Jensen: How does your work at PR Watch help?
Stauber: We try to help citizens and journalists learn about how they’re being lied to, manipulated, and too often defeated by sophisticated PR campaigns. The public-relations industry is a little like the invisible man in that old Claude Rains movie: crimes are committed, but no-one can see the perpetrator. At PR Watch, we try to paint the invisible manipulators with bright orange paint. Democracies work best without invisible men. n
* You can contact PR Watch at 3318 Gregory St, Madison, WI 53711, USA, or go to www.prwatch.org
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