The PR Industry : PR and the public

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Public relations and lobbying industry

an overview

By Corporate Watch UK
Completed April 2003

6.0 PR and the Public

6.1 Astroturf campaigns
6.2 Countering activists and NGOs

The public or sections of it are most usually the targets of the PR industry, consumers of information campaigns. With campaigns against corporations on the rise however activist groups and NGOs are now often seen as the enemy in crisis or reputation management campaigns. Starting in the 1990s the PR industry began to realise the power of grassroots organisation ranged against their clients and sought to fashion their own "astroturf" citizens campaigns.

6.1 Astroturf campaigns

Astroturf campaigns are those which aim to create the impression of grassroots support for or opposition to a given project. Sometimes PR companies can successfully organise discontented workers or sections of the public to vent their frustrations on environmentalists or particular legislation that the client wants derailed. Sometimes they simply create faked public concern. John Stauber of PR Watch describes astroturf thus: "the appearance of democracy bought and paid for with millions of dollars from wealthy special interests

National Grassroot & Communications is a US company with offices in Washington D.C., Seattle, and California specialising in 'astroturf' campaigns. NGRC uses astroturf methods topass and defeat legislation at state and federal levels and proudly boasts that it "has changed government policies on gasoline additives for ARCO Chemical Company… protected generic pharmaceutical sales for Barr Laboratories… increased community support for Wal-Mart Stores… and developed national and state legislative coalitions for the generic pharmaceutical industry."[91] One time CEO, Pamela Whitney said, "We take on the NIMBYs and environmentalists… [and assist] companies who want to do a better job of communicating to their employees because they want to remain union-free."[92]

NGRC sets up its campaigns by identifying and hiring local community leaders and then supports them in setting up campaign groups. They have found retired women with community experience to be the very best campaign leaders.

In Germany a group called the Federal Organisation for Landscape Protection, abbreviated to BLS in German, seems to have been orchestrarting astroturf opposition to wind farms. BLS representatives tour the country giving talks and spreading propaganda against wind energy. Where wind farms are proposed BLS helps to start up local community campaigns against them. Their propaganda usually alleges that wind turbines will destroy the landscape, bring down property prices, kill brids by the hundred and raise energy prices.

BLS has tried to maintain that it was a wholly independent environmental group. However after finding that BLS' lawyer was using a fax machine owned by a subsidiary of, VIAG, a nuclear and conventional energy generating company, journalist Michael Franken discovered further links between BLS and the electricity industry.[93]

6.2 Countering activists and NGOs

Since the sixties, big business has increasingly been targeted by citizens campaigns over consumer and workers' rights and environmental issues. Monitoring and countering these threats has become a standard service often known as 'environmental PR'.

Andy Rowell, author of 'Green Backlash' describes the typical PR offensive against environmental campaigns as about trying to create the following impressions:

Whilst industry groups will tend to give themselves green-sounding names and try to argue that they are the true environmentalists, the PR offensive will try to brand activists as terrorists, religious fanatics, nazis, communists or crazed and probably violent extremists of some sort. Alternatively it may portray environmentalists as stick-in-the mud preservationists or middle class elitists opposed to working class needs[94].

Despite the best efforts of some, the environmental movement has shown no sign of disappearing, so new strategies are always being developed for dealing with it.

Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin, a PR firm known for its monitoring and infiltration of activist groups, claim to use a classic divide and rule strategy when working against grassroots campaigns. MB&D characterise activists as belonging to one of four categories: 'radicals', 'opportunists', 'idealists' and 'realists'. Their three step strategy is to isolate the radicals, 'cultivate' the idealists and educate them into becoming realists and then to 'educate' the realists so that they agree with industry.[95]

The big new corporate PR strategy is to create dialogue with NGOs. Dialogue provides ample opportunity to divide NGOs and grassroots campaigns and enables corporations to define the terms of a debate, often subtly shifting discussion away from questioning whether a given project should go ahead to how it can happen, all the while giving the impression of openness and transparency.

When Monsanto's 1998 'Food, Health, Hope' advertising campaign collapsed seeming only to have fueled the British public's cynicism about and opposition to GM crops, Monsanto's next move was to try to initiate a "National Stakeholder Dialogue on GMOs".[96]

In 1998, Rio Tinto, formerly RTZ, held two for a in the UK to discuss its operating principles and procedures with NGOs. Rio Tinto which has been the subject of sustained criticism for abysmal human rights and environmental standards was ostensibly looking for feedback from the NGO community on what standards it should aim for. Rio Tinto's foremost critic PARTiZANs was not invited to the fora and neither were any of the (mostly third world) communities on the receiving end of Rio Tinto's operations. Some of the NGOs, such as World Development Movement and Friends of the Earth declined the inivtation, while other more moderate organisations such as Oxfam and Amnesty International attended.[97]

The new PR buzzword for dealing with the crisis of trust in corporations is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and its most obvious activity seems to be yet more dialogue and consultation between business and "stakeholders". "business driven membership network" CSR Europe, for instance, whose "mission is to help companies achieve profitability sustainable growth and human progress by placing corporate social responsibility in the mainstream of business practice", goes about doing this primarily by aiming to encourage "dialogue between stakeholders and to promote others to initiate dialogue. All our work links to this aim"[98]

Aside from dialogue CSR's other main goal seems to be the formulation of voluntary codes of conduct. Journalist and author, George Monbiot comments, "By hiring green specialists to advise them on better management practices, they [corporations] hope to persuade governments and the public that there is no need for compulsory measures. The great thing about voluntary restraint is that you can opt into or out of it as you please… As soon as it becomes burdensome, the commitment can be dropped."[99] Meanwhile business continues as usual.

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[1] Mundy A, “Is the Press Any Match for Powerhouse PR?” Columbia Journalism Review Sep/Oct 92,, date viewed 12-6-2002