Issue 2 October 1998 PRESSURE POLITICS IN BRUSSELS
The PR Industry Cooks Up a Conference
In June, the Brussels-based public relations group Entente International Communication co-organized a conference [note 1] with the sinister-sounding title "Pressure Politics: Industry's Response to the Pressure Group Challenge".
According to the invitation, "Pressure groups are exploiting the perceived democratic deficit in European society, increasingly to mobilize Europe's citizens on a range of consumer and environmental issues, often with damaging commercial implications for companies". The conference was targeted at "corporate relations managers, external relations directors, PR consultants, environmental consultants, political and public affairs consultants, company directors, legal advisers, corporate strategists and politicians". The exorbitant fee for the one-day conference (BEF 11,950) kept away all but a handful of representatives of so-called 'pressure groups'.
One of the leading public affairs agencies in Brussels with branches in several EU countries, Entente ("No One Understands the EU Better Than Entente") offers companies strategic advice on lobbying, tracking policy, media support and assistance in pinpointing funding opportunities within the EU budget. "Our hallmark is to take the most strategic approach to EU lobbying -- anticipating and being able to respond to each stage in the decision-making process -- from pre-draft in the Commission through the detailed debate in the Parliament to final adoption by member governments", the agency claims in its publicity materials.
Entente's Pressure Groups conference drew participants and speakers from well-known companies including Exxon, Ford of Europe, Hoechst, McDonald's France, Mitsubishi, Monsanto, Nestlé, Petrofina, Philips, Price Waterhouse, Rio Tinto, Shell and SmithKline Beecham. A number of PR consultants and firms (Edelman, Shandwick, the Communications Group, Master Media) were present, as were representatives of the European Commission and Parliament.
The cynical observer could draw the conclusion that the conference was little more than an attempt by Entente to drum up some PR work by exploiting a new niche in the market. There is no doubt that in recent years clashes between the corporate and activist worlds have increased in frequency and intensity. Shell, for example, has been hard hit by the wave of negative publicity prompted by the Brent Spar episode and its role in Nigeria's Ogoniland, and the reputation of McDonald's was seriously tarnished during the recent McLibel trial in the UK. As a result, many companies have been prompted to adopt the tactic of 'dialogue' with NGOs and civil society. Entente's interest, however, is less in negotiation and joint solution finding between business and pressure groups, but rather in sowing seeds of worry among the industry representatives. This role as fear monger is clear in the unsettling questions which were explored at the meeting, for example whether the growing number of activists "clamouring and sometimes physically demonstrating for attention" will "eventually lead to bedlam, chaos, even anarchy".[note 2] This would mean an abrupt end to business-as-usual indeed!
In preparation for the event, Entente orchestrated two major surveys, the results of which were presented at the conference. The first surveyed the attitudes of major companies across Europe towards pressure groups and activists, and the second tallied the opinions of pressure groups and activists themselves. In both surveys, the framing of the questions clearly illuminated the biases of the questioners. Companies, for example, were asked questions which might identify the need for assistance from the PR industry: "Can the effects of pressure group challenges be contained with effective public relations?" and "Does the need to respond to pressure groups require permanent or case-by-case communications expertise for companies such as yours?" Pressure groups were asked vague questions which showed little understanding of the tactics or goals of the majority of activist groups working for social change, such as: "Do you believe that pressure groups represent a legitimate alternative to conventional politics?" and "Is not the ultimate consequence of direct action politics, chaos followed by breakdown of social fabric?"
The corporate survey, which was answered by "more than 250 of the largest companies from all of the major commercial and industrial sectors in Europe",[note 3] showed a wide range of opinion on the threats posed to business by pressure groups. An important conclusion drawn by the organizers and stressed by corporate speakers and participants was that pressure groups have a far more sophisticated understanding of media and communications strategies than do their corporate counterparts. Corporate concern about the newfound abilities of pressure groups to organize quickly and globally via the Internet were apparent. The organizers attempted to stoke these fears in the survey results: "A growing number of multinational companies -- e.g. McDonald's and Microsoft -- have been viciously attacked on the Internet by unidentifiable opponents which leave their victims in desperate search for adequate counter measures". More surprising, however, were the stated beliefs of corporate representatives that the mainstream media is biased towards pressure groups and that "governments listen to pressure groups and legislate as a result".[note 4] The general atmosphere of "business under attack" was charged with frequent reminders that public sympathy lies with pressure groups rather than with business.
Breaking Down The Social Fabric?
According to Entente, 100 pressure groups were questioned for the second survey. The results of the survey cannot be taken very seriously due to a number of factors including the vague nature of the questions ("Does the end justify the means?") and the likely non-representative character of the groups who bothered to respond to the survey (distributed by e-mail). Although 70% of the respondents "felt that they could co-exist with the corporate state" and most pressure groups did not agree that "the ultimate consequence of direct action politics [is] chaos followed by breakdown of social fabric", the survey results are strategically sprinkled with some of the more extreme answers which likely caused a few palpitations of corporate hearts. One group responded "the bastards have to be made to listen before they engage in dialogue", for example, and another "claimed they were busy plotting 'the downfall of industrial capitalism'". Entente speakers noted how pressure groups tend to focus on "emotions, not rationality", thus providing yet another reason for business to beware.
The Entente corporate survey concluded that most companies -- at least publicly -- prefer the approach of dialogue and accommodation of pressure group concerns. And the questions asked by corporate participants showed that most of them were interested in learning from the tactics of pressure groups in order to better equip themselves in their internal operations. Yet there is no doubt that actions against citizens' groups are acquiring an increasing hysterical tone as these movements gain in influence and effectiveness, and these actions are most certainly fuelled by industry discontent. In September, participants at an anti-globalization meeting in Geneva were questioned and some arrested, and the Geneva office of Peoples' Global Action raided and its computers confiscated. The police admitted that these actions were 'preventative' in the run-up to the ICC's Geneva Business Dialogue. This disturbing synergy between governments, police and industry was further exemplified in anti-activist declarations in the final statement from the Geneva Business Dialogue (see article this issue). These crackdowns on pressure groups gives an even more sinister tone to Entente's pressure groups conference. The company's final reminder to corporate participants that the lack of a strategy to deal with pressure groups is a "'bunker-like' approach, and failure to use external and experienced help is surprising -- and potentially dangerous" is thus not only greedily motivated by profits, but also irresponsible and dangerous as it fuels misperceptions and lies about the goals and tactics of citizens' groups.
This is the second Corporate Europe Observer feature on the burgeoning European PR industry. Since the publication of our first article in the previous issue, several activists with questions about particular PR firms and specific companies have contacted us. Unfortunately we are not able to carry out the research needed to clarify the complex web of relationships between industries and PR firms. We will continue to offer background information and highlight specific cases which come to our attention, but would also like to point out that this is a critical area for further attention (any students looking for thesis ideas?) by anti-corporate rule activists. Please contact us if you have ideas about how to delve deeper into the European PR world!
1. Together with the European Voice newspaper. |Back to Text|
2. Peter Hamilton, Board Director of Entente, speech at Pressure Politics conference, 4 June 1998. |Back to Text|
3. Entente survey results. |Back to Text|
4. Ibidem. |Back to Text|