CovertAction Quarterly
Public Relations Secret War on Activists, continued


In 1990, David Steinman's book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, was scheduled for publication. Based on five years of research, it detailed evidence that hundreds of carcinogens, pesticides, and other toxins contaminate the US food chain. It documented, for example, that raisins had 110 industrial chemical and pesticide residues in 16 samples, and recommended buying only organically grown varieties.

Diet for a Poisoned Planet enabled readers to make safer food choices. But before they could use the information, they had to know about the book so that they could buy and read it. In the weeks after it came out, Steinman's publisher scheduled the usual round of media reviews and interviews, not suspecting that the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) had already launched a campaign to ensure that Steinman's book would be dead on arrival.

The stakes were high. In 1986, CALRAB had scored big with a series of clever TV commercials using the California Dancing Raisins that pushed up raisin sales by 17 percent. Steinman's book threatened to trip up the careful PR choreography.

Even PR hacks
use the term "Astroturf"
to deride their competitor's work.
In their perverse doublespeak world,
"real" grassroots is astroturf that has been
so well designed that it looks real.

To kill the Steinman book, CALRAB hired Ketchum PR Worldwide, whose $50 million a year in net fees made it the country's sixth largest public relations company. Months before the publication of Diet for a Poisoned Planet, Ketchum sought to obtain [a] copy of [the] book galleys or manuscript and publisher's tour schedule, wrote senior vice-president Betsy Gullickson in a secret September 7, 1990 memo outlining the PR firm's plan to manage the crisis.

"All documents...are confidential. Make sure that everything even notes to yourself are so stamped. ... Remember that we have a shredder; give documents to Lynette for shredding. All conversations are confidential, too. Please be careful talking in the halls, in elevators, in restaurants, etc. All suppliers must sign confidentiality agreements. If you are faxing documents to the client, another office or to anyone else, call them to let them know that a fax is coming. If you are expecting a fax, you or your Account Coordinator should stand by the machine and wait for it. "
Gullickson's memo outlined a plan to assign broad areas of responsibility, such as intelligence/information gathering, to specific Ketchum employees and to Gary Obenauf of CALRAB. She recommended that spokespeople conduct one-on-one briefings/interviews with the trade and general consumer media in the markets most acutely interested in the issue .... [Ketchum] is currently attempting to get a tour schedule so that we can `shadow' Steinman's appearances; best scenario: we will have our spokesman in town prior to or in conjunction with Steinman's appearances.

After an informant involved with the book's marketing campaign passed Ketchum a list of Steinman's talk show bookings, Ketchum employees called each show. The PR firm then made a list of key media to receive low-key phone inquiries. They tried to depict Steinman as an off-the-wall extremist without credibility, or argued that it was only fair that the other side be presented. A number of programs canceled or failed to air interviews. In the end, an important contribution to the public debate over health, the environment, and food safety fell victim to a PR campaign designed to prevent it from ever reaching the marketplace of ideas.


Ronald Duchin, senior vice-president of another PR spy firm Mongoven, Biscoe, and Duchin would probably have labeled Steinman and Tylczak radicals. A graduate of the US Army War College, Duchin worked as a special assistant to the secretary of defense and director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars before becoming a flack. Activists, he explained, fall into four categories: radicals, opportunists, idealists, and realists. He follows a three-step strategy to neutralize them: 1) isolate the radicals; 2) cultivate the idealists and educate them into becoming realists; then 3) co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry.

According to Duchin, radical activists:

"want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives [and] see multinational corporations as inherently evil....These organizations do not trust the... federal, state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry. ... I would categorize their principal aims right now as social justice and political empowerment."
Idealists are also hard to deal with. They want a perfect world and find it easy to brand any product or practice which can be shown to mar that perfection as evil. Because of their intrinsic altruism, however, and because they have nothing perceptible to be gained by holding their position, they are easily believed by both the media and the public, and sometimes even politicians. However, idealists have a vulnerable point. If they can be shown that their position in opposition to an industry or its products causes harm to others and cannot be ethically justified, they are forced to change their position.... Thus, while a realist must be negotiated with, an idealist must be educated. Generally this education process requires great sensitivity and understanding on the part of the educator.

Opportunists and realists, says Duchin, are easier to manipulate. Opportunists engage in activism seeking visibility, power, followers and, perhaps, even employment. ... The key to dealing with [them] is to provide them with at least the perception of a partial victory. And realists are able to live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic. [They] should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue. ... If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution.

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