Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Friday, September 08, 2006

John Stauber & The PR Industry

Advocate: John, you've written three books about the public relations industry, and you've been publishing PR Watch for eight years, so I'm sure you're chockfull of horrifying PR stories. Can you give a particularly egregious example of PR at its worst?

Stauber: When Sheldon [Rampton] and I wrote our first book, Toxic Sludge is Good For You, our publisher challenged us to come up with a title that didn't even use the word PR in it. He said, "Look, no one wants to read a book about PR. Everyone thinks they're too intelligent, too cynical, too sophisticated, too educated to be fooled about PR."

So we came up with this title, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, which we didn't realize had actually been inspired by a Tom Tomorrow cartoon that we had in the first issue of PR Watch, where, you know, toxic sludge is getting into the water supply and PR experts are brought in, and by the fourth panel of the cartoon the citizenry is saying, "Well, how foolish we were to be concerned about toxic sludge, and yes, it's good for you."

Then I realized, after understanding the inspiration for the title, that people are going to think that this really is a book about toxic sludge, and we have to research whether there is such a thing as toxic sludge and whether there's a PR campaign trying to tell us it's that it's good for us. But that was put on the backburner.

And then one day while we were finishing up our book, I got a call from [a woman] at the Water Environment Foundation. And in my business, when you hear something like "Water Environment Foundation," you turn the needle 180 degrees [and ask suspiciously], "What's the Water Environment Foundation?"

Well, it turned out to be the sewage sludge industry, and she was calling because she said, "I heard that you have this book coming out, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, and I'm really quite concerned because, frankly, it's not toxic anymore and we don't call it sludge. It's now bio-solids, and it's a natural organic fertilizer. And we're very concerned that your book title is going to interfere with our education campaign to get farmers across the country to use bio-solids as a fertilizer on their farm fields."

So, that became a chapter in our book called, "The Sludge Hits the Fan," and we actually broke nationally this whole story about how this toxic sludge -- mountains of it building up at sewage plants all across the country that the Environmental Protection Agency had deemed too toxic to landfill or incinerate or dump in the ocean -- has basically been renamed "bio-solids -- a natural organic fertilizer." And now half of it is being spread all across the country on farmlands, despite the fact that it's still as toxic as ever.

So, I mean, what that showed to Sheldon [Rampton] and me is that, no matter how cynical you are, you can't be cynical enough to anticipate the extent to which public relations is being used to manage issues. And essentially every single controversy that exists or that might occur already has an invisible PR crisis management campaign.

Advocate: Can you go into more depth about this invisibility?

Stauber: Well, the 20th century has been marked by three great developments: the rise of democracy, the rise of corporate power and the rise of corporate propaganda to protect corporate power from democracy. Corporations wage war on democracy through advertising and public relations, but especially public relations.

And the main difference between advertising and public relations, in terms of persuasion, is that advertising is usually in your face. You know, if you see a logo on a T-shirt, or advertising on the side of a bus, or hear an ad on the radio, hopefully you think, "Well, somebody has spent an incredible amount of money to craft this message, to deliver it, to persuade me... I should be skeptical."

In any society, the best propaganda has to be invisible. What public relations is really about is creating reality, and you have to do that through invisible means. Any public relations that isn't hidden just isn't very good.

Advocate: In Trust Us, you apply a name to a very popular PR method that really epitomizes this invisibility. Tell us about the "third party technique."

Stauber: Well, the third party technique is as old as the hills. The idea is that you find some supposedly independent, trusted source that you can use to send your message out to the public. Let's say I'm the coal industry and I launch a campaign to tell the American public that coal emissions (which are exacerbating global warming) are really good because global warming means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; more carbon dioxide means plants are going to grow more, and isn't that the epitome of a good environment -- more green, growing plants?

It sounds ludicrous. It sounds absurd. It's ridiculous. I'm the coal industry, for God's sake, and who's going to believe that? You know, probably only someone holding a lot of stock in the coal industry! So what the coal industry does is fund a group called the Greening Earth Society with people who have environmental and scientific credentials. And somehow, with a straight face, [these people] are able to say, "Yes, indeed, global warming appears to be occurring, and that's good. We should embrace global warming."

And that makes people stop and think, "It's something called the Greening Earth Society; it's got to be an environmental group. This guy has a Ph.D., he's a scientist, and I'm listening to him on, you know, on my National Public Radio affiliate. And he's doing this great job assuring me that global warming really is good for me." That's the third party technique, and, yes, it's effective, because it usually works through the media.

Advocate: Now, can you use a real-life example to explain how the third-party technique is used?

Stauber: Well, the Greening Earth Society is one example.

Advocate: [Laughing] You're kidding!

Stauber: [Laughing] No, that's true! I don't make this stuff up. The Greening Earth Society really exists, and their message is exactly as I presented it. They're the creation of the coal industry.

Advocate: That's terrifying.

Stauber: It is terrifying, but there it is: Global warming is good for you.

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Break Free

Corporate Mind Kontrol

Corporations, governments, and special interest groups spend at least 30 billion dollars annually --exclusively, to screw with your mind. Whether you hear the news on NPR or your local morning shock jock, read the New York Times or USA Today, watch C-Span or the nightly news, an enormous percentage of the news you take in will be the direct result of somebody's spin. And it's all because of a subdivision of the advertising world called the public relations industry. With 2200 public relations flacks in over 30 countries, Burson-Marsteler is the world's largest public relations firm. They represent big-name corporations (Philip Morris, AT & T, NBC), foreign nations (the governments of Indonesia, El Salvador, Kenya) and heavy-duty non-governmental organizations (the World Bank, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association,the American Petroleum Institute).

Burson-Marsteler's promotional materials boast that "the role of communications is to manage perceptions which motivate behaviors that create business results." In other words, Burson-Marsteler "manages" information to earn money. Like all the best public relations firms, who "communicate" to "create business results," they practice spin control. With so many of the world's most powerful institutions as their clients, Burson-Marsteler just happens to do spin very effectively.

Their mission is to help clients "manage issues by influencing -- in the right combination -- public attitude, public perceptions, public behavior and public policy." That mission goes for the entire PR industry. According to the U.S. Bureauof Labor Statistics, there are 118,280 PR workers in the U.S alone. To account for the historical inaccuracy of U.S. census data, both critics and proponents of the PR industry have estimated that upwards of 200,000 people work in the field. The PR industry is so huge because of corporations. Most every issue in the news today -- global warming, globalization, genetically modified foods, tobacco legislation -- affects corporations who stand to gain or lose heaps of money, depending on public reaction. Therefore, the "management" of public reaction is crucial.

If, for instance, the public does not display outrage over global warming, the auto industry can stave off costly renewable energy alternatives. If not enough people seem frightened by the existing and potential dangers of genetically modified "Frankenfoods," multinational corporations such as Monsanto will continue to rake in bundles by genetically modifying food. And if the public believes that anti-globalization protestors are simple-minded rebels without a cause, Phillip Morris, Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks and others can safely multiply their revenues overseas.

With so much cash riding on public opinion, industry has always viewed public relations as a valuable, even necessary investment. Why else would corporations throw billions of dollars a year at the PR industry?

"In societies like ours," said investigative journalist Derrick Jensen,"corporate propaganda is delivered through advertising and public relations. Most people recognize that advertising is propaganda... [but] public relations is much more insidious. Because it's disguised as information, we don't often realize we are being influenced by public relations."

And, whatever the issue may be, the public relations industry is usually behind the scenes--wagging the dog.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Monday, September 04, 2006

War & Terrorism

THERE IS SOMETHING important to be learned from the recent experience of the United States and Israel in the Middle East: that massive military attacks, inevitably indiscriminate, are not only morally reprehensible, but useless in achieving the stated aims of those who carry them out.The United States, in three years of war, which began with shock-and-awe bombardment and goes on with day-to-day violence and chaos, has been an utter failure in its claimed objective of bringing democracy and stability to Iraq. The Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon has not brought security to Israel; indeed it has increased the number of its enemies, whether in Hezbollah or Hamas or among Arabs who belong to neither of those groups.

I remember John Hersey's novel, ``The War Lover," in which a macho American pilot, who loves to drop bombs on people and also to boast about his sexual conquests, turns out to be impotent. President Bush, strutting in his flight jacket on an aircraft carrier and announcing victory in Iraq, has turned out to be much like the Hersey character, his words equally boastful, his military machine impotent.

The history of wars fought since the end of World War II reveals the futility of large-scale violence. The United States and the Soviet Union, despite their enormous firepower, were unable to defeat resistance movements in small, weak nations -- the United States in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan -- and were forced to withdraw.Even the ``victories" of great military powers turn out to be elusive. Presumably, after attacking and invading Afghanistan, the president was able to declare that the Taliban were defeated. But more than four years later, Afghanistan is rife with violence, and the Taliban are active in much of the country.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, with all their military expenditure, have not been able to control events in countries that they considered to be in their sphere of influence -- the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and the United States in Latin America. Beyond the futility of armed force, and ultimately more important, is the fact that war in our time inevitably results in the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. To put it more bluntly, war is terrorism. That is why a ``war on terrorism" is a contradiction in terms. Wars waged by nations, whether by the United States or Israel, are a hundred times more deadly for innocent people than the attacks by terrorists, vicious as they are.

The repeated excuse, given by both Pentagon spokespersons and Israeli officials, for dropping bombs where ordinary people live is that terrorists hide among civilians. Therefore the killing of innocent people (in Iraq, in Lebanon) is called accidental, whereas the deaths caused by terrorists (on 9/11, by Hezbollah rockets) are deliberate.

This is a false distinction, quickly refuted with a bit of thought. If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the grounds that a ``suspected terrorist" is inside (note the frequent use of the word suspected as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), the resulting deaths of women and children may not be intentional. But neither are they accidental. The proper description is ``inevitable."So if an action will inevitably kill innocent people, it is as immoral as a deliberate attack on civilians. And when you consider that the number of innocent people dying inevitably in ``accidental" events has been far, far greater than all the deaths deliberately caused by terrorists, one must reject war as a solution for terrorism. For instance, more than a million civilians in Vietnam were killed by US bombs, presumably by ``accident." Add up all the terrorist attacks throughout the world in the 20th century and they do not equal that awful toll.

If reacting to terrorist attacks by war is inevitably immoral, then we must look for ways other than war to end terrorism, including the terrorism of war. And if military retaliation for terrorism is not only immoral but futile, then political leaders, however cold-blooded their calculations, may have to reconsider their policies.

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Friday, September 01, 2006


Global Meltdown

Richard Alley's eyes glint as we sit in his office in the University of Pennsylvania discussing how fast global warming could cause sea levels to rise. The scientist sums up the state of knowledge: "We used to think that it would take 10,000 years for melting at the surface of an ice sheet to penetrate down to the bottom. Now we know it doesn't take 10,000 years; it takes 10 seconds."

That quote highlights most vividly why scientists are getting panicky about the sheer speed and violence with which climate change could take hold. They are realising that their old ideas about gradual change - the smooth lines on graphs showing warming and sea level rise and gradually shifting weather patterns - simply do not represent how the world's climate system works.

Dozens of scientists told me the same thing while I was researching my book The Last Generation. Climate change did not happen gradually in the past, and it will not happen that way in the future. Planet Earth does not do gradual change. It does big jumps; it works by tipping points.

The story of research into sea level rise is typical of how perceptions have changed in the past five years. The conventional view - you can still read it in reports from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - holds that sea levels will start to rise as a pulse of warming works its way gradually from the surface through the 2km- and 3km-thick ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, melting them. The ice is thick and the heat will penetrate only slowly. So we have hundreds, probably thousands, of years to make our retreat to higher ground.

Recent research, however, shows that idea is wholly wrong. Glaciologists forgot about crevasses. What is actually happening is that ice is melting at the surface and forming lakes that drain down into the crevasses. In 10 seconds, the water is at the base of the ice sheet, where it lubricates the join between ice and rock. Then the whole ice sheet starts to float downhill towards the ocean.

"These flows completely change our understanding of the dynamics of ice sheet destruction," says Alley. "Even five years ago, we didn't know about this."

This summer, lakes several kilometres across formed on the Greenland ice sheet, and drained away to the depths. Scientists measured how, within hours of the lakes forming, the vast ice sheets physically rose up, as if floating on water, and slid towards the ocean. That is why Greenland glaciers are flowing faster, and there are more icebergs breaking off into the Atlantic Ocean. That is why average sea level rise has increased from 2mm a year in the early 1990s to more than 3mm a year now.

Soon it could be a great deal more. Jim Hansen of Nasa, George Bush's top climate modeller, predicts that sea level rise will be 10 times faster within a few years, as Greenland destabilises. "Building an ice sheet takes a long time," he says. "But destroying it can be explosively rapid."
Alarmist? No. It has happened before, he says. During the final few centuries of the last ice age, the sea level rose 20 metres in 400 years, an average of 20 times faster than now. These were sudden, violent times. And the melting was caused by tiny wobbles in the Earth's orbit that changed the heat balance of the planet by only a fraction as much as our emissions of greenhouse gases are doing today.

There is more evidence of abrupt and violent change, most of it culled from ice cores, lake sediments, tree rings and other natural archives of climate. We now know that the last ice age was not a stable cold era but near-permanent climate change. Towards the end, around 11,000 years ago, average temperatures in parts of the Arctic rose by 16C or more within a decade. Alley believes it happened within a single year, though he says the evidence in the ice cores is not precise enough to prove it.

All this comes as a surprise to us because, in the 10,000 or so years since the end of the last ice age, the climate has been, relatively speaking, stable. We have had warm periods and mini ice ages; but they were little compared with events before.

It is arguable that this rather benign world has been the main reason why our species was able to leave the caves and create the urban, industrial civilisation we enjoy today. Our complex society relies on our being able to plant crops and build cities, knowing that the rains will come and the cities will not be flooded by incoming tides. When that certainty fails, as when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last year, even the most sophisticated society is brought to its knees.

But there is a growing fear among scientists that, thanks to man-made climate change, we are about to return to a world of climatic turbulence, where tipping points are constantly crossed. Their research into the workings of the planet's ecosystems suggests why such sudden changes have happened in the past, and are likely again in future.

One driver of fast change in the past has been abrupt movements of carbon between the atmosphere and natural reservoirs such as the rainforests and the oceans. Hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide can burp into the atmosphere, apparently at the flick of a switch.
That is why the Met Office's warning that the Amazon rainforest could die by mid-century, releasing its stored carbon from trees and soils into the air, is so worrying. And why we should take serious note when Peter Cox, professor of climate systems at Exeter University, warns that the world's soils, which have been soaking up carbon for centuries, may be close to a tipping beyond which they will release it all again.

Other threats lurk on the horizon. We know that there are trillions of tonnes of methane, a virulent greenhouse gas, trapped in permafrost and in sediments beneath the ocean bed. There are fears this methane may start leaking out as temperatures warm. It seems this happened 55m years ago, when gradual warming of the atmosphere penetrated to the ocean depths and unlocked the methane, which caused a much greater warming that resulted in the extinction of millions of species.

All this suggests that, in one sense, the climate sceptics are right. They say the future is much less certain than the climate models predict. They have a point. We know less than we think. But the sceptics are wrong in concluding that the models have been exaggerating the threat. Far from it. Evidence emerging in the past five years or so suggests the presence of many previously unknown tipping points that could trigger dangerous climate change.

Can we call a halt? Hansen says we have 10 years to turn things round and escape disaster. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, which considers the Earth a self-regulated living being, reckons we are already past the point of no return. I don't buy that. For one thing, there is no single point of no return. We have probably passed some, but not others.

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