Covering The Earth With "Green PR"

by Joel Bleifuss

As the 25th anniversary of Earth Day dawns, the public relations industry is quietly advising its corporate clients to keep from gloating.

The February 1995 O'Dwyer's PR Services reports that the recent Republican electoral victory means "Relief is on the way for PR clients on the environmental front. . . . Green PR people are advised to ride the Republican fueled anti-environmental backlash wave as far as possible. But they should not be greedy because overreaching may come back to haunt them once the sun sets on the pro-business Republicans and the greenies are again on the rise."

In the perverse world of public relations, lobbying against environmental regulations is known as "environmental" or "green" PR. "Environmental PR people enjoy sweet dreams these days as visions of Newt Gingrich and his Republican cohorts chopping away at 'burdensome' green regulations dance in their heads. . . . Green PR pros are salivating at the chance to prove their worth to clients. They are ready to navigate the thicket of regulations in DC, select those most annoying to clients, and convince lawmakers to dump them."

Michael Kehs, who heads Burson-Marstellar PR's worldwide environmental practice, offers this advice to O'Dwyer's readers: "Don't get your hopes up and don't appear greedy by complaining how much compliance with green laws costs . . . Don't overreach or else things may backfire. . . . That could jeopardize years of good works and careful corporate positioning."

President Clinton's election in 1992 seemed to usher in a period of rising influence for the environmental movement. "Today, however," reports Kehs, "the business community enjoys the upper hand. . . . There is a new contract on the street. And although the word 'environment' is never mentioned, many observers believe it's less a contract with America than a 'contract on environmental busybodies.' . . . There is no better time to extend an olive branch."

Plumbing The Public Mind

Public relations begins with state-of-the-art opinion polling. The PR industry's desire to pacify the environmental movement reflects its well-researched and deep understanding of public opinion in the United States.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of people today believe that human actions are damaging the natural environment they live in. Market researchers say that somewhere between 75 percent to 95 percent of US citizens consider themselves to be "green." More than 20 million "green" Americans translate these concerns into contributions of time and money to environmental organizations.

These opinions contrast strongly with the consensus opinion among business executives. According to one leading PR firm, 99.9 (!) percent of business executives agree with the statement: "Overall, the quality of the environment in your country is improving."

Even though business leaders are a minority whose opinions run contrary to the mainstream of American thought, they are able to determine government policy thanks to a carefully-planned, long-term strategy of "divide and conquer" which skillfully exploits divisions, such as those between "moderates" and "radicals" within the environmental movement.

Bruce Harrison, one of the leading practitioners in the field of environmental PR, says "top management" realizes that the vast majority of "green" Americans are "disconnected" from environmental reality. But communications specialists can now "quantify the sources of misperceptions that need to be addressed."

The anti-environmental campaign is most obvious in the fringe activities of radical right-wing organizations calling themselves the "Wise Use" movement. Supported by corporate sponsors, Wise Use is loudly agitating against laws and regulations that constrain the exploitation of natural resources. But quietly, far from the roar of anti-environmental extremists, environmental PR specialists are waging a quieter, more insidious war on the environment.

In 1990 alone, US businesses spent an estimated $500 million on hiring the services of anti-environmental PR professionals and on "greenwashing" their corporate image. O'Dwyer's termed the environmental struggle, "the life and death PR battle of the 1990s."

The object of this PR war is to change public perceptions about both the environment and its despoilers. PR battles are being waged on many fronts; on television, in the printed press, in grade school classrooms, in community meeting halls, on the board of directors of mainstream environmental groups, at journalism conferences, and on talk radio.

Softening Up The Center

This strategy explains why many of the same companies that are funding the anti-environmental movement are also pouring money into mainstream environmental groups. Joe Lyford, Jr. reports in Propaganda Review that corporate sponsors of the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation also funded about one-quarter of the 37 organizations described in the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations.

Frank Boren, former president of the Nature Conservancy and a board member of ARCO Petroleum, defends corporate cooperative efforts with environmental organizations. As he told his colleagues, "One good thing about this is that while we're working with them, they don't have time to sue us."

Corporate collaborations with environmental groups provide another benefit to corporate PR professionals: the opportunity to glean valuable knowledge from green critics of the companies they represent.

"Companies must have some vehicle for knowing what the intelligent public thinks about their products and processes," says Joanna Underwood, president of the New York-based INFORM, an environmental research organization. "If they want to understand sophisticated outside views of environmental issues affecting their companies, they would do well to have someone in the room."

Last year, academic business researchers intensely studied the thought processes of 34 people from 21 environmental organizations and 37 environmental managers from 19 corporations. The environmentalists participating in this study came from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Corporate participants included environmental managers from Waste Management, Browning Ferris, ARCO, Mobil, Chevron and 3M.

Based on this study, published in the SAM Advanced Management Journal, the researchers concluded, "Whether an environmental group is confrontive or cooperative toward business depends in large part on how radical its philosophy is toward saving the earth. . . . Corporations are more likely to work with environmental groups who are more conservative. . . . and are willing to cooperate with business."

Going Green With McDonalds

As an example of successful cooperation between business and environmentalists, the press often mentions the partnership between McDonalds restaurants and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

In the midst of a national campaign against McDonalds organized by the grassroots Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, EDF President Fred Krupp barged in and negotiated a settlement. McDonalds agreed to switch from using styrofoam to coated paper in its US restaurants. Krupp gained a victory which the EDF highlights prominently in its fundraising.

EDF's mission, Krupp said, is not to attack corporations but "to get environmental results." He told the New York Times, "Being willing to consider new ways to regulate and being willing to talk with business in a businesslike way is not the same thing as being in favor of halfway compromises."

The main beneficiary of the agreement, however, has been McDonalds, which saw its environmental reputation soar. According to the 1994 Roper Green Gauge Study, an annual consumer opinion poll, McDonalds now has one of the highest environmental ratings of any US corporation.

Meanwhile, McDonalds remains a massive corporate polluter. The company is currently involved in a lawsuit against grassroots activists in England, who have called 180 witnesses to testify about the effects of McDonalds' operating practices and food products on the environment, on millions of farm animals, on human health, on the Third World, and on McDonalds staff.

Mark Dowie, the author of Losing Ground, says the EDF-McDonalds arrangement is an example of "high-level capitulations" that "unfortunately allow companies such as McDonalds to look a lot greener than they are. The corporate exploitation of "win/win" compromising has been relentless, with company after company competing through paid and free media to out-green one another. Such activity on the corporate food chain is both predictable and understandable. But environmental complicity, and its own public relations-driven tendency to turn compromise into false triumph, illustrates the impending moral bankruptcy of many mainstream organizations."

Keith Schneider, the environmental reporter for the New York Times, has won loud praise from PR firms for his reports criticizing the environmental movement. Schneider sees EDF - "one of the few national groups whose membership and budget is growing" - as a role model that other environmental groups should imitate. Schneider says less pliant groups, such as Greenpeace, "are in danger of becoming the green equivalent of the military lobby, more interested in sowing fear and protecting wasteful programs than in devising a new course."

Audubon's Don Naish seems to agree. "Conservationists have just got to learn to work with industry," Naish said, explaining his decision to approve oil drilling by Mobil under an Audubon bird sanctuary in Michigan.

Bad Guys In White Hats

Some of the industrial polluters with the worst records have devised PR public education campaigns that enable the company to placate the public while they continue polluting.

The agri-chemical conglomerate Monsanto was one of the early pioneers of greenwashing, following the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's classic indictment of the pesticide industry. Monsanto responded by publishing The Desolate Year, a parody in which the failure to use pesticides causes a plague of insect pests to devastate America. About 5,000 copies were sent to book reviewers, science and gardening writers, magazine editors and farm journalists. The argument was picked up by New York Times reporter Walter Sullivan, who wrote, "By stating her case so one-sidedly, Rachel Carson forfeits persuasiveness. . . . She also lays herself open to parody. Some unsung hero of the chemical industry has written for Monsanto magazine an article entitled, The Desolate Year."

Monsanto is currently positioning itself to defend its toxic products with a public relations campaign centered on the herbicide Round-Up». The company has given away hundreds of gallons of Round-Up through "Spontaneous Weed Attack Teams" (SWAT) to community groups for spraying in inner-city neighborhoods to make them "cleaner and safer places to live." Monsanto's PR also touts Round-Up as a boon to endangered species, pointing out that the pesticide "is used in Kenya, Africa, to keep grasses from short circuiting electric fences that protect the endangered black rhino."

Dow Chemical's environmental PR campaign began in 1984 with the goal of making "Dow a more highly regarded company among the people who can influence its future." Dow's reputation was still suffering from its manufacture of napalm bombs and Agent Orange defoliants that devastated much of Vietnam. The company mailed glossy "Public Interest Reports" to 60,000 opinion makers: scientists, the media, legislators, regulators, employers, customers, and academics. Illustrated with numerous high-quality photographs, the "Public Interest Reports" touted Dow's programs in the area of environment and five other "good works" categories.

This campaign paid off, according to a 1986 media survey showing a 60.5 percent gain in favorable media opinion. That same year, a poll by the Washington Journalism Review found that business editors rated Dow's PR efforts tops among Fortune 500 chemical companies.

More recently Dow, as a member of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, has participated in Responsible Care, a program where each chemical company evaluates its own environmental performance. Dow also issues annual environmental reports that highlight the steps the company has made in improving its environmental performance. Dow's advertising slogan reinforces the same message: "Dow helps you do great things."

As a result of this systematic campaign, American Demographics listed Dow in 1993 as one of the 10 US firms with the best environmental reputations among consumers.

"Many people use [Dow] as an example of doing the right thing. There is hardly a discussion of pollution control and prevention among American industries that fails to highlight Dow and the strides it has made," writes Jenni Laidman in the Bay City Times of Saginaw, MI. Laidman notes that Dow garners all this praise even though the company "is still a leading polluter in the state and the nation. . . . fish caught downstream from Midland [Dow's home base in Michigan] remain inedible, according to state fish advisories."

Sometimes a change of name is all it takes to improve a company's image. Waste Management, the nation's largest waste disposal company, has paid an estimated $45 million since 1980 for admitted and alleged violations of environmental laws. Recently the company changed its name to WMX, Inc., and began advertising itself as a provider of "environmental services."

Deformed Consent

In addition to co-opting environmental "moderates," the corporate PR firms are helping companies set up "community advisory panels" (CAPs) to strengthen their image in the towns and neighborhoods that host industrial facilities.

"I would give it three years and you'll see [CAPs] all around. They will be an integral part of doing business in all major industries," says A.J. Grant, president of Environmental Communication Associates in Boulder, Colorado. "You've got to have a marketing department, you've got to have accounting, and you'll have to have community interaction in the form of a CAP."

According to Joel Makower, the editor of The Green Business Letter, CAPs "differ in makeup, style, and function," but "a typical CAP consists of 12 to 15 people, including activists, homemakers, community leaders - a representative sampling of just plain folks - as well as company representatives."

CAPs create a forum for dialogue between the company and the community, but the nature of the dialogue is carefully modulated to emphasize emotions and image-shaping rather than issues of substance. "People in a community are usually more concerned about such issues as trust, credibility, competence, fairness, caring and compassion than about mortality statistics and the details of quantitative risk assessment," explains the PR firm Edward Howard and Co.

Dow Chemical is one of the companies that has pioneered in the establishment of CAPs. As an example of the strategy's effectiveness, Makower relates the following anecdote: "Members of one CAP, unbeknownst to the company, appeared voluntarily before a local hearing to testify why the company should be allowed to site an incinerator in their back yard. You can't buy that kind of help at any price."

"Pro-industry citizen activist groups can do things the industry can't," explained Ron Arnold, the father of the anti-environmentalist "Wise Use" movement. In a candid talk to the Ontario Forest Industries Association, Arnold elaborated on the benefits of a citizens front group strategy: "It can form coalitions to build real political clout. It can be an effective and convincing advocate for your industry. It can evoke powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtue of the close-knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller, and many others I'm sure you can think of. It can use the tactic of the intelligent attack against environmentalists and take the battle to them instead of forever responding to environmentalist initiatives. And it can turn the public against your enemies."

The Washington Post reported that even 10 years ago, Burson-Marsteller's DC office alone had five PR specialists concentrating only on designing coalitions for clients. As one Burson-Marsteller executive explained it, these coalition designers "are building allies and neutralizing the opposition."

James Lindheim, Burson-Marsteller's director of worldwide public affairs, puts it this way: "Don't forget that the chemical industry has many friends and allies that can be mobilized - employees, shareholders, and retirees. Give them the songsheets and let them help industry carry the tune."

Sometimes the public catches on. A group called "Citizens to Protect the Pacific Northwest and Northern California Economy" was formed in 1993 by timber company executives, who mailed out 1.5 million form letters asking people to send back a signature card if they agreed with the group's goals. State leaders were then appointed.

When asked what he was going to do, the group's Washington state co-chair replied: "I haven't been brought up to date on what their agenda is going to be." A Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial put it this way: "To hire a press agent to cook up a campaign, pay all that campaign's bills and then claim that the campaign 'was founded by more than 100 prominent community leaders in Oregon, Washington and Northern California' is too crafty by half."

Shifting The Blame: From Political To Personal

If corporations are not despoiling our natural environment, then who is to blame? According to corporate-sponsored PR campaigns, the answer is obvious. You are.

Elizabeth Whelan of the industry-funded American Council on Science and Health says the real threats to public health are lack of seatbelts and smoke detectors, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. "Every one of them could be prevented with a change in lifestyle," she says.

Gregg Easterbrook, the Newsweek journalist who has made a name for himself as an apologist for polluting industry, has also concluded that the acts of individuals are the root of many environmental problems. He wrote in New York Times Magazine, "Though environmental orthodoxy holds that third world deforestation is caused by rapacious clear-cutters and ruthless cattle barons, penniless peasants seeking fuel wood may be the greatest threats to our forests."

In the US, the Keep America Beautiful campaign (KAB) is industry's most organized proponent of the belief that individual irresponsibility is at the root of pollution. About 200 companies, including McDonalds, fund KAB to the tune of $2 million a year. Members of the KAB board of directors include a PR honcho from Burson-Marsteller and a corporate official from Waste Management.

According to the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, most of the companies that support KAB "manufacture and distribute aluminum cans, paper products, glass bottles and plastics that account for about a third of the material in US landfills." KAB's message to consumers is that they are responsible for this trash, and that they must solve this problem by changing their habits.

Since the early 1970s, Greenpeace reports, KAB has used more than half a billion dollars worth of donated advertising time and space to encourage guilty consumers to "put litter in its place." (Of course, since the responsibility for litter rests with individuals, KAB strongly opposes a national bottle bill that would place a deposit on glass and metal drink containers.)

In effect, KAB is a front group for industries that refuse to be responsible for the trash they generate in the course of doing business.

Taking Off The Kid Gloves

When "nice guy" tactics like co-optation and community advisory panels fail to accomplish their goals, corporations remain prepared to wage war on their environmental critics, using slanders, falsified information, lawsuits and threats of violence.

According to Rush Limbaugh, "the new home of the communist/socialist conspiracy is in the environmental movement." To discredit environmentalists, Hill and Knowlton PR distributed a phony memo on Earth First! letterhead, calling for acts of violence "to fuck up the mega machine."

And Kathleen Marquardt of Putting People First, a Wise Use group that does not list its sources of funding, repeats Lyndon LaRouche's invented assertion that Greenpeace is connected to the KGB. Marquardt was awarded "best newcomer" at the 1992 Wise Use Leadership Conference. Upon accepting her award, Marquardt said: "Here is our enemy - the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Humane Society." According to Marquardt, the Humane Society is a "radical animal rights cult . . . a front for a neo-pagan cult that is attacking science, health and reason."

The Wise Use Movement is the brainchild of Alan Gottlieb and Ron Arnold, respectively the founder and the director of the Bellevue, WA-based Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations describes the Center, founded in 1983, as "the premier think tank and training center for the Wise Use movement."

The founding funders of the Center include the timber firms Georgia Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific, Boise Cascade, Pacific Lumber and MacMillan Bloedel, along with companies like Exxon and Dupont.

The Wise Use agenda is simple. Says Arnold, "We intend to wipe out every environmental group, by replacing it with a Wise Use group."

The public relations industry has been closely involved with Wise Use since its founding, according to Joyce Nelson, the author of Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media (Common Courage Press). Nelson writes that 36 of the corporations that are known to fund the Wise Use movement in the United States were clients of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller in the 1980s, the period during which industry began to pour money into that movement.

The first Wise Use conference, held in 1988, was supported by a variety of special interests including Exxon and the National Rifle Association. The 1990 conference, funded by Chevron, Exxon, Shell Oil and Georgia Pacific, featured a talk by Reed Irvine, of Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia. Titled "Red Into Green," Irvine's talk claimed that environmentalism is the latest incarnation of socialism. Irvine's groups are funded by Dresser Industries, Chevron, Ciba-Geogy, Exxon, IBM, Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical, Union Carbide, Phillips Petroleum, Mobil Foundation, and Texaco Philanthropic Foundation, among others.

Also at that conference, the Mountain States Legal Foundation gave three seminars on "suing Environmental Organizations." Mountain States Legal Foundation is funded by companies including Amoco, Exxon, Ford, Texaco, Phillips Petroleum, Chevron and the Coors Foundation.

"Our intent is to sue environmental groups whenever there is a legal reason to do so," Arnold said. "We feel that whenever any environmental group tells lies that have an economic harm against anybody, that is a civil tort, and under US law they should be vigorously prosecuted in civil court."

And if lawsuits fail, some anti-environmentalists urge even stronger tactics. Former Interior Secretary James Watt (currently under federal criminal indictment on corruption charges) told a gathering of cattlemen in June 1990, "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."

[Reprinted with permission from PR Watch, Volume 2, Number 1, First Quarter 1995. Address correspondence to: Center for Media and Democracy, 3318 Gregory Street, Madison, WI 53711, or call 608-233-3346.]

Copyright Mendocino Environmental Center 1995