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.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home