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Corporate Europe Observer

The European PR Industry

Any good activist knows that untangling the corporate web is no easy task. The secretive and influential political pastimes of TNCs and their lobby groups are supported and facilitated by an intimidating network of corporate-backed and funded academics, media outlets, conservative think tanks and the enormous multi- billion public relations industry. In this issue of the Observer, we take an initial look into the world of corporate public relations. Our research has been assisted and inspired by the recent appearance of three important publications: "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, "Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism" by Sharon Beder, and "Engineering of Consent: Uncovering Corporate PR" by Judith Richter, a briefing paper published by The Corner House.

The European PR industry is a relatively new phenomenon. National level public relations companies and public affairs divisions of TNCs have of course been around for many years, but the Brussels PR apparatus has developed parallel to the emergence of corporate lobby groups in Europe over the past decade. Consequently, whereas North American and Australian activists are tuned into the role played by the PR industry in sustaining corporate rule, little effort has until now been directed towards the exposure of the European PR apparatus.

Yet all three of the aforementioned publications provide ample argument for European campaigners on democracy, environmental, political and social issues to incorporate the role of the public relations industry their analysis. As Stauber and Rampton point out in their shocking exposé, "PR has become a communications media in its own right, an industry designed to alter perception, reshape reality and manufacture consent." Thus, since "the point of PR] is getting people to behave the way you hope they will behave by persuading them that it is ultimately in their interest to do so" (Alfred Geduldig, Mobil Oil PR executive, quoted in Richter), social movements have the daunting task of unveiling the cynicism and manipulation of this industry to the general public.

"Lies, Damn Lies! Toxic Sludge Is Good For You!" reveals the operations of PR firms in the environmental movement, in the US tobacco wars, in the nuclear industry, and in the support of various military dictatorships. Some of the disturbing tactics used by the PR industry include:

      •"Anti-publicity" campaigns which have successfully sabotaged the release of progressive, health-related and environmental books in the US through scientific misinformation and mass appeals to the media and opinion leaders.

      • The mass production and distribution of 'video news releases' -- paid for by industry and often indistinguishable from 'real' news -- by PR firms to television stations around the world. As a result, approximately 40% of all 'news' in the US is in fact produced by PR firms working in the corporate interest.

      • Phoney, hi-tech, custom-designed, industry-funded 'grassroots citizens' campaigns' that 'lobby' on legislation of interest to industry. One PR firm even phones citizens and offers to write letters to public officials for them: "We handwrite it on 'little kitty stationary' if it's a little old lady [...]. Getting a pile of personalized letters with a different look is what you want to strive for."

      • The provision of information gathering and 'security' services to TNCs, including research and the 'proactive neutralization' of environmental and health campaigns which might negatively affect business.

      • The creation of 'divide and rule' strategies to encourage sec- tors of the environmental movement to enter into partnerships with industry, as well as the cooptation of activists to work from the 'inside' against the interests of their movements.

      • The creation of powerful, well-funded corporate front groups on issues ranging from food and chemicals to climate change and toxic waste disposal.

Corporate Activism

Sharon Beder's book probes many of the same strategies in depth, focusing on the manipulation and co-optation of the environmental debate and parts of the environmental movement by corporations. She charts the emergence of 'corporate activism' in the US and Australia in the 1970s following the birth of the green movement and consequent wave of environmental legislation. Viewing these new regulations as threats to their interests, industry began to adopt "the strategies that public-interest activists had used so effectively against them" -- aided and abetted, of course, by big bucks. Working in coalitions was one such strategy, and bodies such as the US Business Roundtable were created and existing groups like the Chamber of Commerce invigorated. Their overall goal was to put a stop to the expensive and restrictive environmental regulations for which environmentalists were responsible, or more radically, as one consultant to the oil industry put it, to "put the environmental lobby out of business".

Although the environmental movement is still alive and kicking, Beder points out that what corporations have managed to do to varying extents in all industrialized countries is to greenwash their collective images with massive brainwashing campaigns. Tactics used include blaming the environmental movement for societal ills ranging from unemployment to inflation, infiltrating the educational system at all levels with the free enterprise message, and funding neoliberal scholars, think tanks, political journals, press and foundations. As a result, the message that intervention in the free market is a threat to democracy is firmly wedged in the public mind. Simultaneously, by continuously harping on the new "conservative mood" among the public (which in fact is not supported by several US polls showing the emergence of a more progressive public spirit), the media and PR industry have helped to push the political agenda to the right.

With the emergence of new global environmental threats, such as climate change and ozone depletion at the end of the 1980s, the environmental movement enjoyed a resurgence. But corporations were well prepared to throw the public relations machinery back into gear. This time, the corporate attack has targeted environmentalists themselves -- perhaps, as activist Brian Tokar suggests, because the environmental movement "may be one of the last internal obstacles to the complete hegemony of transnational capitalism." The power of persuasion which corporations are able to create through the PR industry should not be estimated -- for example, Beder points out that "corporate funded anti-environmental efforts produced a major shift in public opinion within the space of a single year. In 1992, 51% of those surveyed agreed that environmentalists had 'gone too far', compared with 17% the year before."

Corporate lobby groups continued to mushroom -- Beder provides the illuminating statistic that each of the 30 largest US companies belongs to an average of 5.7 coalitions, and that more than a third of them devote more than one million dollars per year to these groups -- as did corporate 'grassroots' organizing and funding of the anti-environmental Wise Use movement. And in what is perhaps the most disturbing trend, these corporate forces have been largely successful in persuading the public, governments, and even sectors of the environmental movement, that ecological salvation lies in the unrestricted operation of the free market and self-regulation.

Nestlé Exposed

Richter's paper reveals how corporations have adopted the strategy of 'dialogue' and 'cooperation' with their opponents in order "to manipulate public debates; to silence or neutralize critics; and to create an image of socially-concerned business". This is illustrated with the fascinating case study of the campaign against Nestlé's aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes in the Third World. Beginning in the 1970s, campaigners around the world claimed that artificial feeding as promoted by Nestlé and other companies was responsible for the death of millions of babies each year. A global boycott of Nestlé was launched in 1977, and in 1981 the World Health Organization and UNICEF adopted an International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Nestlé was incensed by the boycott, which created both a significant drop in revenue a well as an ugly smear on the company's image.

In reaction, the former VP of Nestlé wrote a secret internal memo in 1980 which stated: "It is clear that we have an urgent need to develop an effective counter-propaganda operation, with a network of appropriate consultants in key centres, knowledgeable in the technicalities of infant nutrition in developing countries, and with the appropriate contacts to get articles placed." Nestlé's resulting PR strategy included the establishment of corporate NGOs to facilitate access to the UN and other decision-making fora, the funding of an "independent social audit committee" to divert attention away from attempts at real independent monitoring, the filing of a libel suit against a Swiss solidarity organization for publishing the book "Nestlé Kills Babies", and systematic attempts to weaken the boycott by providing participating NGOs with misinformation.

Although the consumer boycott was suspended in 1984, it was relaunched again in 1989 after it became clear that Nestlé was proceeding business-as-usual in the baby milk market. Today, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) encompasses over 150 groups in more than 90 countries and continues to put the heat on Nestlé in various ways (see article elsewhere in this issue).

Delving Into the European PR Industry

Nestlé's aggressive public relations strategy is among the few case studies of the European PR industry documented by activists. A few more examples, culled from various campaign groups and the annual reports of Brussels-based PR companies, follow:

      • Burson Marsteller, the world's largest PR firm and renowned for its 'crisis management' for Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster and Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, created a highly successful PR strategy for the European biotech industry (see Corporate Europe Observer, October 1997). Based on their perceptive observation that "public issues of environmental and human health are communications killing fields for bioindustries in Europe," Burson Marsteller in the service of the corporate lobby group EuropaBio has contributed to the generally passive acceptance of this dangerous technology among the European public.

      • Several Swiss TNCs, including Nestlé, Novartis and Hoffman- LaRoche, have launched a costly campaign to influence the outcome of a June 1998 referendum on strict regulations of the biotech industry in the country. According to Greenpeace Switzerland, the psychological manipulations used by the companies include their portayal of Swiss citizens as backwards in comparison to more progressive, genetic-manipulation- accepting populations elsewhere in Europe, and anti-progress.

      • Shandwick, the second largest PR company in the world, describes its business as "global reputation management." It recently opened a new public affairs office in Brussels and counts several ERT member companies (including Shell, ICI and Monsanto) among its clients. The Brussels office "specializes in European Union public affairs consultancy services" and allows Shandwick staff  "to help clients present their case to parliamentary and regulatory authorities." In line with the strategy of the ERT to model itself closely after the Commission, Shandwick's publicity material announces: "We adopt an approach which mirrors the structure of the EU itself, with programmes being executed in the capitals of Europe by Shandwick staff who are nationals of those countries ... Our Brussels office is not simply a public affairs boutique, therefore, but an important hub from which pan-European programmes are directed." Shandwick also claims to have experience working with the Brussels media crowd, which they consider "crucial in terms of influencing global decision makers."

      • Edelmann Worldwide, which opened a Brussels office in 1995, boasts in its publicity material about its marketing of a new chemical flea control product by "communicating directly with veterinarians and pet owners in North America and Europe." In Italy, Edelmann worked with the Omnitel corporation "to establish it as Italy's leading private provider of cellular telephone service with an aggressive grassroots public issues campaign." Edelmann also represented of the banana multinational Chiquita, which is known for its exploitative labour practices and unfriendly environmental techniques in the Third World, "before the European Commission and Parliament and in key member states." Chiquita, the world's largest producer and marketer of bananas, was behind the claim brought by the US and other governments to the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute panel in 1996 against the EU's preferential treatment for bananas by small-scale farmers in former European colonies. The EU lost both the dispute and ts appeal, and will have to reform its banana importation to make it compatible with the WTO. According to Corporate Watch magazine, Chiquita's billionaire chairman "is under investigation by a US Senate Committee for giving US$415,000 to state democratic parties throughout the US in April 1996, only hours after the US administration filed its challenge to the EU with the WTO."

      • Hill & Knowlton, the third largest PR company in the world, announced in its 1996 annual report that its "healthcare unit was chosen by the European Commission to communicate the health benefits of olive oil." Over the past few years, the EU has created an enormous surplus of olive oil in its drive to intensify production of particular agricultural products in various regions.

The Commission as well as various European TNCs and corporate lobby groups undoubtedly makes use of the blossoming Brussels public relations system for a range of other promotional and image-enhancing activities. CEO is hoping to pursue this avenue further by collecting information on the activities of the European PR industry. Please pass along any interesting findings to us, and we will continue to report on PR activities as they are uncovered.

"Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton is available from Common Courage Press, fax: 1 207 525 0900.

Sharon Beder's "Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism" can be ordered from Green Books greenbooks@gn.apc.org.

"Engineering of Consent: Uncovering Corporate PR" is available from The CornerHouse cornerhouse@gn.apc.org. http://www.icaap.org/Cornerhouse/

The International Baby Food Action Network can be reached at PO Box 157, 1211 Geneva 19, Switzerland, fax: 41 22 798 4443; e-mail: philipec@iprolink.ch

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