CovertAction Quarterly
Public Relations Secret War on Activists, continued

We the People


Another crude but effective way to derail potentially meddlesome activists is simply to hire them. In early 1993, Carol Tucker Foreman, former executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, took a job for what is rumored to be an exceptionally large fee as a personal lobbyist for bovine growth hormone (rBGH), the controversial milk hormone produced by chemical giant Monsanto. With Foreman's help, Monsanto has successfully prevented Congress or the FDA from requiring labeling of milk from cows injected with rBGH. In fact, the company used threats of lawsuits to intimidate dairy retailers and legislators who wanted to label their milk rBGH-free.

While she is helping Monsanto wage its all-out campaign for rBGH, Foreman is also the coordinator and lobbyist for the Safe Food Coalition, an alliance of consumer advocacy, senior citizen, whistleblower protection, and labor organizations. Formed by Foreman in 1987, the Coalition's members include such public interest heavyweights as Michael Jacobson's Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, and Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.

Foreman said she saw no conflict of interest in simultaneously representing rBGH and the Safe Food Coalition. The FDA has said rBGH is safe, she explained, adding Why don't you call CSPI; they say rBGH is safe too? Asked how much money she has received from Monsanto to lobby for rBGH, she angrily retorted, What in the world business is that of yours? Her D.C. consulting firm, Foreman & Heidepriem, refused to provide further information and referred journalists to Monsanto's PR department.


William Novelli, a founder of the New York-based Porter/Novelli PR firm, cheerfully uses the term cross-pollination to describe his company's technique of orchestrating collusion between clients with seemingly conflicting interests. By donating free work to health-related charities, for example, Porter/Novelli gains leverage to pressure the charities into supporting the interests of the firm's paying corporate clients. In 1993, this strategy paid off when produce growers and pesticide manufacturers represented by Porter/Novelli learned that PBS was about to air a documentary by Bill Moyers on pesticide-related cancer risks to children. The PR firm turned to the American Cancer Society (ACS), to which it had provided decades of free services. The national office of ACS dutifully issued a memo charging that the Moyers program makes unfounded suggestions...that pesticide residues in food may be at hazardous levels. The industry then cited the memo as evidence that Moyers' documentary overstated dangers to children from pesticides.

Hill & Knowlton executive Nina Oligino used a similar cross-pollination technique in 1994 to line up national environmental groups behind Partners for Sun Protection Awareness, a front group for Hill & Knowlton's client, Schering-Plough. Best known for Coppertone sun lotion, the drug transnational uses the Partners to educate the public to the dangers of skin cancer, cataracts, and damaged immune systems caused by a thinning ozone layer and an increase in ultraviolet radiation.

In the past, Hill & Knowlton has also worked for corporate clients who hired them to disprove or belittle the environmental warnings of global climate change.15 Seamlessly shifting gears into environmentalist mode, Hill & Knowlton convinced leaders of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club to add their names to the Partners for Sun Protection letterhead.

A representative (who asked not to be named) of one of the environmental groups said he was ignorant of the Schering-Plough funding and its hidden agenda to sell sun lotion. Had he examined the Partners campaign, however, he might have noticed that it offered no proposals for preventing further ozone depletion and failed to mention that covering up completely was the best sun screen of all. Instead, the primary action the drug company-funded coalition recommended was to liberally apply a all exposed parts of the body before going outdoors. One of the campaign's clever video news releases shows scores of sexy, scantily-clad sun worshippers overexposing themselves to UV rays, while slathering on suntan oil.


PR firms often bypass activist organizations and custom design their own grassroots citizen movements using rapidly evolving high-tech data and communications systems. Known in the trade as astroturf, this tactic is defined by Campaigns & Elections magazine as a grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.

Astroturf is particularly useful in countering NIMBY or Not in my back yard movements community groups organizing to stop their neighborhood from hosting a toxic waste dump, porno bookstore, or other unwanted invaders.

John Davies, who helps neutralize these groups on behalf of corporate clients such as Mobil Oil, Hyatt Hotels, Exxon, and American Express, describes himself as one of America's premier grassroots consultants. His ad in Campaigns & Elections (see p. 18) is designed to strike terror into the heart of even the bravest CEO. It features a photo of the enemy: a little old white-haired lady holding a hand-lettered sign, Not In My Backyard! The caption warns, Don't leave your future in her hands. Traditional lobbying is no longer enough....To outnumber your opponents, call Davies Communications.

Davies promises to make a strategically planned program look like a spontaneous explosion of community support for needy corporate clients by using mailing lists and computer databases to identify potential supporters. He claims his telemarketers will make passive supporters appear to be concerned advocates. We want to assist them with letter writing. We get them on the phone [and say], `Will you write a letter?' `Sure.' `Do you have time to write it?' `Not really.' `Could we write it for you?... Just hold, we have a writer standing by.'

Another Davies employee then helps create what appears to be a personal letter. If the appropriate public official is close by, we hand-deliver it. We hand-write it out on `little kitty cat stationery' if it's a little old lady. If it's a business we take it over to be photocopied on someone's letterhead. [We] use different stamps, different envelopes.... Getting a pile of personalized letters that have a different look to them is what you want to strive for.


Grassroots PR is the specialty of Pamela Whitney at National Grassroots & Communications, the firm that spied on Lynn Tylczak.

My company basically works for major corporations and we do new market entries, she says. Wal-Mart is one of our clients. We take on the NIMBYs and environmentalists. They also work for companies who want to do a better job of communicating to their employees because they want to remain union-free. They aren't quite sure how to do it, so we go in and set that up.

One of National Grassroots' first tasks, after information gathering/spying, is to set up its own local organizations by hiring local ambassadors who know the community inside and out to be our advocates, and then we work with them, explains Whitney. They report to us. They are on our payroll, but it's for a very small amount of money. [O]ur best community ambassadors are women who have possibly been head of their local PTA; they are very active in their local community or women who are retired and who have a lot of time on their hands. They are supervised by professionals with field organizing experience on electoral campaigns who can drop in the middle of nowhere and in two weeks they have an organization set up and ready to go.

These professional grassroots organizers dress carefully to avoid looking like the high-priced, out-of-town hired guns they really are. When I go to a zoning board meeting, Whitney explained, I wear absolutely no make-up, I comb my hair straight back in a ponytail, and I wear my kids' old clothes. You don't want to look like you're someone from Washington, or someone from a corporation.... People hate outsiders; it's just human nature.

With enough money, the same techniques can be applied on a national scale. As the health care debate heated up in the early days of the Clinton administration, Blair G. Childs masterminded the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices (CHIC). An insurance industry front group, CHIC received major funding from the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA), a trade group of insurance companies. According to Consumer Reports, The HIAA doesn't just support the coalition; it created it from scratch.

Health reform opponents used opinion polling to develop a point-by-point list of vulnerabilities in the Clinton administration proposal and organized over 20 separate coalitions to hammer away at each point. Each group chose a name with a general positive reaction....That's where focus group and survey work can be very beneficial, explained Childs. `Fairness,' `balance,' `choice,' `coalition,' and `alliance' are all words that resonate very positively. Childs, who has been organizing grassroots support for the insurance industry for a decade, wasn't the only PR genius behind the anti-health care campaign, but his coalition can honestly claim the kill.

CHIC's multi-coalition strategy assured numbers and cover, and took advantage of different strengths. Some have lobby strength, some have grassroots strength, and some have good spokespersons, Childs said. In its campaign against mandatory health alliances, CHIC drew in everyone from the homeless Vietnam some very conservative groups. *23 It also sponsored the legendary Harry and Louise TV spot which, according to the New York Times, 'symbolized everything that went wrong with the great health care struggle of 1994: A powerful advertising campaign, financed by the insurance industry, that played on people's fears and helped derail the process.

CHIC and the other coalitions also used direct mail and phoning, coordinated with daily doses of misinformation from radio blowtorch Rush Limbaugh, to spread fears that government health care would bankrupt the country, reduce the quality of care, and lead to jail terms for people who wanted to stick with their family doctor. Childs explained how his coalition used paid ads on the Limbaugh show to generate thousands of citizen phone calls from the show's 20 million listeners. First, Limbaugh would whip up his fans with a calculated rant against the Clinton plan. Then, during a commercial break, listeners would hear an anti-health care ad and an 800 number to call for more information. The call would ring a telemarketer who would ask a few questions, then patch them through electronically to their congressmembers' office. Staffers fielding the resulting barrage of phone calls typically had no idea that the constituents had been primed, loaded, aimed, and fired at them by radio ads paid for by the insurance industry, with the goal of orchestrating the appearance of overwhelming grassroots opposition to health reform.

When the health care debate began in 1993, Childs said, popular demand for change was so strong that the insurance industry was looking down the barrel of a gun. By 1994, industry's hired PR guns had shot down every proposal for reform.


Many PR pros think that the media, both national and local, are easier to handle than the public. To begin with, the media itself is a huge, profitable business, the domain of fewer and fewer giant transnational corporations. Not surprisingly, these transnationals often find that their corporate agenda and interest are compatible with, or even identical to, the goals of the PR industry's biggest clients. While this environment may be demoralizing to responsible journalists, it offers a veritable hog heaven to the public relations industry.

In their 1985 book, Jeff and Marie Blyskal write that

"PR people know how the press thinks. Thus, they are able to tailor their publicity so that journalists will listen and cover it. As a result much of the news you read in newspapers and magazines or watch on television and hear on radio is heavily influenced and slanted by public relations people. Whole sections of the news are virtually owned by PR....Newspaper food pages are a PR man's paradise, as are the entertainment, automotive, real estate, home improvement and living sections... Unfortunately, `news' hatched by a PR person and journalist working together looks much like real news dug up by enterprising journalists working independently. The public thus does not know which news stories and journalists are playing servant to PR. "
As a result, notes a senior vice-president with Gray & Company public relations, Most of what you see on TV is, in effect, a canned PR product. Most of what you read in the paper and see on television is not news.

The blurring of news and ads accelerated in the 1980s, when PR firms discovered that they could film, edit, and produce their own news segments even entire programs and that broadcasters would play them as news, often with no editing. Video news releases (VNRs), typically come packaged with two versions: The first is fully edited, with voiceovers pre-recorded or scripted for a local anchor to read. The second, a B-roll, is raw footage that the station can edit and combine with tape from other sources.

There are two economics at work here on the television side, explains a Gray & Company executive. The big stations don't want prepackaged, pretaped. They have the money, the budget, and the manpower to put their own together. But the smaller stations across the country lap up stuff like this.

With few exceptions, broadcasters as a group have refused to consider standards for VNRs, in part because they rarely admit to airing them. But when MediaLink the PR firm that distributed about half of the 4,000 VNRs made available to newscasters in 1991 surveyed 92 newsrooms, it found that all had used VNRs supplied free by PR firms. CBS Evening News, for example, ran a segment on the hazards of automatic safety belts created by a lobby group largely supported by lawyers.


The PR industry is innovating rapidly and expanding into cyberspace. Hyped as the ultimate in electronic democracy, the information superhighway will supposedly offer a global cornucopia of programming offering instant, inexpensive access to nearly infinite libraries of data, educational material and entertainment. But as computer technology brings a user-friendlier version of the internet to a wider spectrum of users, it has attracted intense corporate interest.

Given that a handful of corporations now control most media, media historian Robert McChesney finds it is no surprise that the private sector, with its immense resources, has seized the initiative and is commercializing cyberspace at a spectacular rate effectively transforming it into a giant shopping mall. *30 PR firms are jumping on the online bandwagon, establishing world wide web sites and using surveys and games to gather marketing and opinion information about the users of cyberspace, and developing new techniques to target and reach reporters and other online users.

Today, with many more options available, PR professionals are much less dependent upon mass media for publicity, writes industry pro Kirk Hallahan in Public Relations Quarterly. In the decade ahead, the largest American corporations could underwrite entire, sponsored channels. ... [which] will be able to reach coveted super-heavy users ... with a highly tailored message over which [corporations could] exert complete control.


The groups that most scare the PR industry are the local grassroots groups they derisively label NIMBYs. Unlike national environmental groups and other professional reformers, the local groups are hard to manipulate precisely because they aren't wired in to the systems that PR firms like to manipulate. Most Not in My Backyard activists commit to a cause after some personal experience drives them to get involved. Typically, they act as individuals or with small groups of citizens who come together to address a local, immediate threat to their lives, cities and neighborhoods. They are often treated with contempt by the professional environmentalists, health advocates and other public interest organizations headquartered in Washington, D.C. Many times, they lack organizing expertise and money. They don't have budgets or polished grant proposals needed to obtain funding from foundations and major donors. But corporations and the US government are spending tens of millions of dollars on PR and lobbying to fight these local community activists.

The most visible manifestations of NIMBYism, and its biggest success stories, have been in stopping toxic waste sites and toxin-belching incinerators from invading communities. Author Mark Dowie sees this new wave of grassroots democracy as the best hope for realizing the public's well-documented desire for a clean and healthy environment in sustainable balance with nature. Today, grassroots anti-toxic environmentalism is a far more serious threat to polluting industries than the mainstream environmental movement, Dowie writes. Not only do local activists network, share tactics, and successfully block many dump sites and industrial developments, they also stubbornly refuse to surrender or compromise. They simply cannot afford to. Their activities and success are gradually changing the acronym NIMBY to NIABY Not In Anybody's Backyard.

But before that can happen, local groups need to develop a strategy for confronting the powers-that-be in their backyard, and that means learning to recognize and fight the techniques of PR. Until they learn this lesson, local activists may continue to win local battles, while finding themselves outmaneuvered and outgunned at the national level.


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