Lies, Damned Lies, and the Public Relations Industry
In an Age of Information Warfare, We Must All be Forensic Scientists and Rhetoricians
Table 5.1 in the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual contains, among many, the following recommendations:
“Learn the insurgents’ messages or narratives. Develop countermessages and counternarratives to attack the insurgents’ ideology.”
“Respond quickly to insurgent propaganda. Delaying responses can let the insurgent story dominate several news cycles. That situation can lead to the insurgents’ version of events becoming widespread and accepted.”
Photo by Flickr user Rootytootoot
These are military strategies, intended for managing resistant populations in occupied countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But these very tactics may soon come home to roost. Last week in Houston, at an oil industry conference, an executive advised his audience to think of grassroots environmental groups opposing oil development as an “insurgency.” He then recommended downloading and studying a copy of the Army counterinsurgency manual.
Another speaker said that his company employs several ex-military “psy ops” specialists in Pennsylvania, and that they have been “very helpful.” CNBC obtained recordings of these talks, and has the full report. It looks like these companies are more and more shameless about their tactics for public “perception management” (to borrow another military term).
Maybe I’m a bit naïve. As a recent college graduate, I have some inculcated faith in the existence of Truth: you know, the objective, unadulterated, reliable kind. But, in the course of my research for various articles – about cell phones, timber companies, krill oil supplements, or anything really – I find that research is less like walking up to a reference librarian to receive a straight answer, and more like picking through the rubble on a vast and confusing battlefield of information warfare.
With a little more reading, and some very helpful time on the phone with grassroots media strategist Celia Alario, I learned that there is indeed a large and complex information battleground in our public discourse. Grassroots groups, independent scientists, and activists often find themselves pitted against giant PR firms (such as Hill Knowlton, notorious for selling the Persian Gulf War), cross-spectrum advertisement campaigns, and euphemistic Astroturf groups that form the smiling face of profit-driven corporations. In order to make informed decisions and allegiances, citizens and consumers must pick through the rhetoric and wreckage of these constant battles.
The good news is that we have help. One prime example is the Center for Media and Democracy, of prwatch.org, an investigative reporting group focusing on “exposing corporate spin and government propaganda.” CMD staff have authored books such as “Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq,” and “Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future.”
I’m very thankful to learn that such organizations exist. At the same time, I’m sad that we need them. Especially in times defined by shorter attention spans and the almighty 8-second sound bite, it’s disconcerting how much industry money is invested in advertising, lobbying, and propaganda to manipulate public opinion and choices.
Let’s zoom in on one industry—plastics—and play “follow the money.” In August, plastics industry lobbyists pressured California school officials into including a section called “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags” in the teacher’s edition of the 11th-grade environmental curriculum. The section is lifted almost verbatim from letters written by industry representatives, with bald-faced promotional language such as “Plastic bags are very convenient to use.”
And yesterday, the New York Times reported that Grand Canyon National Park officials have suddenly dropped plans to ban the sale of water in disposable plastic bottles. Why? Because Coca-Cola, which has donated more than $13 million to the park over the years, started asking questions and making counter-arguments. A Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Susan Stribling, advocated more recycling programs, rather than a ban on bottles, as a means to reduce litter. A ban, she argued, would limit personal choice. “You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume,” she said.
You may remember a similar (or perhaps the exact same) argument coming from Nick Naylor, the tobacco lobbyist in the 2005 satirical film Thank You for Smoking. I could also argue that, with a yearly advertising budget approaching $3 billion, and slogans such as “Open Happiness” and “Life Begins Here” appearing on billboards, TV spots, and every other available medium worldwide, Coca-Cola has its own special way of affecting what I decide to drink and consume. But I digress.
A recent story from the plastic shopping bag sector offers a good example of industry bullying. It also offers some measure of hope. Earlier this year, ChicoBag, a California-based maker of reusable shopping bags, was sued by three of the country’s largest manufacturers of disposable plastic bags. The lawsuit, led by Hilex Poly of Delaware, alleged that information on ChicoBag’s website about the environmental impacts of reusable vs. disposable bags was “explicitly false,” and had caused “irreparable injury” to the sales of single-use plastic bags.
The plaintiffs claimed that ChicoBag’s “Learn the Facts” webpage contained out-of-date or fabricated information. For example, they pointed out that ChicoBag linked to an archived version of an EPA webpage, preserved via web.archive.org, which contained statistics no longer visible on the current EPA website. ChicoBag countered that they were one of the few companies to provide citations at all, and that all their information was well-known and “widely accepted.” The company also promptly updated its website and removed any possible inaccuracies.
There is speculation that ChicoBag came under fire because single-use bag companies have started to perceive the durable bag industry as a real threat. “They’re in a bind,” Andy Keller, founder of ChicoBag, told me. “Their business model is getting marginalized. We’re innovating to meet the growing demand for green products, and we’re also showing people that they use a lot of plastic bags. I think that message really pissed Hilex Poly off.” And, with the no-doubt-expensive help of Edelman, the world’s largest private PR firm, Hilex Poly was able to nitpick information that the smaller company provided to promote its reusable bags.
The irony—and the real kicker—is that despite being much larger, Hilex Poly and its industry confederates showed much less journalistic responsibility, and when pressured, caved much more quickly. When ChicoBag asked that the companies disclose more accurate information about plastic recycling—data that the industry has been reluctant to share for years—the other two plaintiffs, SuperBag and Advance Poly, quietly withdrew from the lawsuit. And, at the conclusion of the legal battle, Hilex Poly took down one of its own websites, thetruthaboutplasticbags.com. Keller says this is because they couldn’t back up the information on the site. He pointed out that “in an Orwellian double-speak manner, one of their stated myths was fact and their stated fact was not true.” Hilex Poly claims they removed the content because it was redundant with one of their other web sites, bagtheban.com.
The lawsuit against ChicoBag was settled out of court in September, and both sides have claimed a victory. Keller refers to the lawsuit as a “huge success,” pointing out that Hilex Poly agreed to make multiple changes in its publicity and bag labeling practices. Funny, considering that they’re the ones who filed the lawsuit in the first place. Both companies agreed to provide “citations and dates for all facts and statistics on any web page or advertising,” and in that regard, this lawsuit is a victory for everyone. But just because a factoid has a cited source doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy.
With my detective hat on, I borrowed a page from Hilex Poly’s playbook, and used web.archive.org to pull up a cached version of their scrapped website. On the front page, the site argues that facts without citations, or “myths,” lead to plastic bag bans that harm consumers. “[T]he proliferation of a theory or undocumented fact to support its own conclusion is known as "circular reporting" and may bode for many things to come on the information highway.” Sounds good, but do they live up to their own standard?
As it turns out, the archived site’s “Get the Facts Straight” page relies heavily on studies and reports funded by the plastics industry. How’s that for circular reporting? And bagtheban.com, Hilex Poly’s newer promotional site, is little better. One statistic claims that “More than 90% of Americans reuse their plastic bags at least once.” The source for that is a study for the industry-run American Plastics Council, which used an “interactive TV panel” methodology to ask 500 American adults the question, “Do you or does anyone in your household ever reuse plastic shopping bags?” (my emphasis) Ever is quite a bit different from the always implied by the wording on BagtheBan.com.
It’s easy to find other examples of bought science. An industry-funded study that found reusable bags to contain high levels of bacteria was later lambasted by Consumer Reports for woefully inaccurate and misleading claims. Another study, which claimed to find dangerous levels of lead in some reusable bags, was conducted by the Center for Consumer Freedom – a group founded by the tobacco industry.
Corporate groups have near-unlimited resources to throw at the problem of public perception. This means that consumers must be alert, and activists must be agile. Celia Alario, who served as a PR consultant to ChicoBag during the lawsuit, described the challenge to me this way: “The pattern I've noticed over the years, is that in the absence of having money, grassroots groups have to be super-innovative to get their message across. And over time, every innovative tactic we come up with becomes commodified, and used by the very corporate groups we were campaigning against, and we have to innovate again.”
P.S. In the course of this article, I used several rhetorical tricks to support my viewpoint and make you more amenable to it. Did you catch me?