John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton
"The 20th century has been characterized 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."
All Lynn Tylczak wanted to do was keep a few kids from being poisoned.
A housewife in Oregon, her imagination was captured by a PBS documentary about a technique used in Europe to prevent children from accidentally swallowing household poisons. Common antifreeze, for example, is made of ethylene glycol, whose sweet taste and smell belies its highly poisonous nature. As little as two teaspoons can cause death or blindness. About 700 children under the age of six are exposed to antifreeze each year, and it is the leading cause of accidental animal poisoning affecting both pets and wild animals. European antifreeze makers poison-proof their products by adding the cbitterant -- denatonium benzoate. Two cents worth makes a gallon of antifreeze taste so vile that kids spit it out the instant it touches their mouth.
She remembers one company's PR representative threatening that he could pay someone $2,000 to have her shot if she didn't back off. When Tylczak began pushing for legislation to require bitterant, another PR firm was sent into the breach: National Grassroots and Communications, which specializes in passing and defeating legislation at the federal and state level. Tylczak had never even heard of the firm until its CEO, Pamela Whitney, made the mistake of bragging about her exploits at a PR trade seminar. The key to winning anything is opposition research, she said. We set up an operation where we posed as representatives of the estate of an older lady who had died and wanted to leave quite a bit of money to an organization that helped both children and animals. We went in and met with [Tylczak] and said, `We want to bequeath $100,000 to an organization; you're one of three that we are targeting to look at. Give us all of your financial records..., all of your game plan for the following year, and the states you want to target and how you expect to win. We'll get back to you.'
Whitney claimed that the records she received contained two bombshells: The Poison Proof Project's tax-exempt status had lapsed, and it had taken funding from bitterant manufacturers. Without leaving any fingerprints or any traces, Whitney boasted, we then got word through the local media and killed the bill in all the states.
When the story got back to Tylczak, she noted that only $100 of the $50,000 in family savings spent on the campaign came from bitterant makers. She's got a very foolish client, Tylczak said. Her story has got more bullshit than a cattle ranch. In fact, she noted, her bill requiring bitterant did pass in Oregon.
What did the PR industry accomplish in its battle against Lynn Tylczak? Were news stories or legislation killed because of Whitney's intervention? In this and other cases, the degree of success PR firms have in manipulating public opinion and policy is almost imposssible to determine. By design, the PR industry carefully conceals many of its activities. Persuasion, by its definition, is subtle, says one PR executive. The best PR ends up looking like news. You never know when a PR agency is being effective; you'll just find your views slowly shifting.
Using money provided by its special interest clients usually large corporations, business associations and governments the PR industry has vast power to direct and control thought and policy. It can mobilize private detectives, lawyers, and spies; influence editorial and news decisions; broadcast faxes; generate letters; launch phony grassroots campaigns; and use high-tech information systems such as satellite feeds and internet sites.
Activist groups and concerned individuals often fail to recognize the techniques and assess the impact of PR campaigns. And indeed, with its $10 billion-a-year bankroll and its array of complex, sophisticated persuasive weaponry, the PR industry can often outmaneuver, overpower, and outlast true citizen reformers. Identifying the techniques of the industry and understanding how they work are the first steps in fighting back.
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