Spin on this!

Forget everything you thought you knew about ‘spin’. The work of the big PR multinationals involves a powerful combination of political lobbying, communications strategy, ‘crisis management’, grassroots organizing, and intelligence gathering.

Peter Melchett, ex-head of Greenpeace UK, who has taken a consultancy job at the world’s largest PR firm and activists’ cartoon-book villain, Burson-Marsteller (BM), has not just changed sides – he’s joined the intelligence services of the opposition.

If you think that sounds paranoid, you should try hanging out with them. Three years ago at a party, a woman I hadn’t seen since college told me she was now working in PR. ‘How interesting!’ I lied. ‘So, what kind of PR do you do?’

‘Oh, you know,’ she shrugged. ‘Our clients are all the big ones.’ ‘You don’t you don’t work for Burson-Marsteller do you?’ I said. ‘Er… yeah. How come you’ve heard of us?’ ‘I’m an activist. And a writer.’ ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘In that case, we probably have a file on you.’ As I choked on my peanuts, she told me she’d watched videos of activists as part of her training, named organizations working on shoestring budgets such as Corporate Watch in Oxford.

This kind of PR is the counter-offensive that flourishes in activism’s wake, increasing in direct proportion to public distrust of the corporate sector.

, an industry magazine, noting the rise of anti-corporate protests ‘in Seattle, Washington, Davos, and elsewhere’ said, ‘Public relations and public affairs professionals will … use the tools and knowledge we possess to build allies for globalization both for capitalism and American values’.

After the Seattle protests Burson-Marsteller subsidiary Black, Kelly, Scrubbs and Healy compiled a report called, ‘Guide to the Seattle meltdown: a Compendium of Activists at the WTO Ministerial’, in which they warned of the potential ability of the ‘emerging coalition of these groups to seriously impact broader, longer-term corporate interests’.

Corporate Social WHAT?

Meanwhile, and exacerbated by the newly charged atmosphere of anti-corporate feeling abroad, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become the new green. PR companies are actively lobbying against environmental and social agreements at the same time as they set up their own CSR units. Burson-Marsteller have jumped on the bandwagon and set up their own consultancy, which Melchett has joined.

But if BM’s Corporate Social Responsibility unit was serious, it’s first job might be to dissolve the main company itself.

Let’s just take a quick whirlwind tour of BM’s recent clients. Three days after the 11 September attacks, O’Dwyers PR Newsletter reported that Saudi Arabia had signed a deal with Craig Veith, chairman of BM’s media practice in Washington, for ‘issues counseling and crisis management’ services.

Meanwhile, BM was helping the Aviation Security Association – made up of private US airport security corporations – in a bid to thwart the nationalization of US airport security. Federalization was endorsed by a 100-to-zero Senate vote in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks.

ASA’s chair, Bill Barbour, was until recently also CEO of Securicor’s Argenbright Security, which was fined $1.5 million for airport security lapses in May 2000. The ASA group’s chief lobbyist Kenneth Quinn defended the involvement of private sector security, insisting there was ‘absolutely no evidence linking the 11 September hijackings to a breakdown in the security function itself’. A nation strokes its chin.

And let’s not forget BM’s contract to handle the ‘communications challenges’ attached to the sensitive business of bidding for property after New York unexpectedly acquired a large chunk of – albeit still smouldering – prime real estate last September.

And that’s quite aside from its history – past clients include Monsanto and the big biotech lobby, Indonesia after the massacre in East Timor, the Romanian dictator Ceausescu, Union Carbide after Bhopal, the Argentinian junta… you get the picture.

Managing activism

So what does BM hope to achieve by recruiting Peter Melchett, who once made headlines pulling up a GM crop test site with other Greenpeace UK activists? The truth is, engaging your critics in dialogue can be as much an early warning system for corporations, an opportunity to window-dress, as a path to genuine change.

In the words of the UK Institute of Public Relations guide Managing Activism, this strategy can ‘offer a way forward where the company does not have to give in to activists or persuade them to give in’. And few can tell where the bear hug between the corporations and its activist critics ends and the vice-like grip of a PR urge to control the terms of debate begins.

Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, was a 70s pioneer of ‘stakeholder theory’, a two-way process whereby you don’t just disseminate information about the company, you also gather information about the ‘values of all stakeholders’ – including those of your most radical critics.

Intelligence gathering and monitoring activism, in other words, is part of the job. [Hi guys if you’re reading this!] A credible benchmark of what your most vociferous critics are thinking helps enormously. Enter, if you please, Lord Melchett.

PR Watch, a radical investigative group in the US, offers a further rationale for Melchett’s appointment. They quote Ronald Duchin, of US PR intelligence gathering firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin:

‘In a 1991 speech to the National Cattlemen’s Association, he described how MBD works to divide and conquer activist movements. Activists, he explained, fall into four distinct categories: ‘radicals,’ ‘opportunists,’ ‘idealists,’ and ‘realists.’ He outlined a three-step strategy:

“(1) isolate the radicals;

(2) “cultivate” the idealists and “educate” them into becoming realists; then

(3) coopt the realists into agreeing with industry.”

He went on, “The realists 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.”’

Melchett, perhaps, suffers from the same curious fantasy that you often find in those working high up in NGOs, who believe that the closer you get to centres of power, the more influence you wield. In fact, the opposite is true.

The funny thing about radical mobilizing and direct action that few ever admit, is that it works. Read the PR industry’s literature and it becomes apparent that what the corporate polluters, exploiters and abusers fear most are radical, informed, empowered, and active public.

Indeed, they see our power better than we do ourselves – and seek to mimic it. PR firms evolved the technique of ‘astroturf’ to mimic the impression of a popular groundswell of support.

When the EU moved to ban bromine – added to appliances to make them flame retardant, but then given off as a gas and absorbed into the human bloodstream – they were assailed by what appeared to be an angry group of European consumers who had risen up spontaneously to demand flame retardant appliances. BM, whose client list at the time included the Dead Sea Bromine Group had set the Alliance for Consumer Fire Safety up itself.

Ever since a wave of popular mobilizing and radical street protest got the world’s attention in Seattle, NGOs research documents and scrutiny into trade policy are getting taken far more seriously by those in power – and as a result, many more are being invited into dialogue with the corporate sector.

NGOs, themselves, however, must not forget the simple power of radical, democratic organising, the power of the grassroots. Far too few of them comprehend how much the radicals and the street activists did for their cause. In constrast, swallowed up in the corridors of power, they will languish there in obscurity.

Swapping the grassroots for astroturf, Melchett may realise that he had far more impact getting arrested destroying GM crops then he will ever achieve inside BM HQ.

* To read more about the issues, go to www.PRWatch.org

Katharine Ainger is a co-editor at the New Internationalist magazine www.newint.org

Leave a comment