By: Carmelo Ruiz
The public relations (PR) business is one of the fastest growing industries in the global market economy. In order to face perils like labor unions, organized consumer activists and environmental groups, governments and corporations have come to rely more on slick PR campaigns. The peril to popular democracy posed by PR firms should not be underestimated. Using the latest communications technologies and polling techniques, as well as an array of high-level political connections, PR flacks routinely "manage" issues for government and corporate clients and "package" them for public consumption. The result is a "democracy" in which citizens are turned into passive receptacles of "disinfotainment" and "advertorials" and in which critics of the status quo are defined as ignorant meddlers and/or dangerous outsiders.
Burson-Marsteller (B-M) is the world's largest PR firm, with 63 offices in 32 countries and almost $200 million in income in 1994. Although its name is unknown to most people-- even to many in activist circles-- B-M is fast becoming an increasingly important cog in the propaganda machine of the new world order.
Human Rights, Anyone?
On the human rights front, B-M has represented some of the worst violators of our age. These include:
Doesn't this bother the consciences of B-M's executives? Not at all. Commenting on his firm's work for Argentina's fascists, B-M founder Harold Burson said that "We regard ourselves as working in the business sector for clearcut business and economic objectives. So we had nothing to do with a lot of the things that one reads in the paper about Argentina as regards human rights and other activities".
For years B-M has been involved in major environmental issues all over the world, not hesitating to give polluters a helping hand when confronted by activist groups and/or government regulations. Many transnational corporations have turned to B-M for help in the creation of a pedantic, elitist and corporate-oriented brand of environmentalism. It is the hope of entrepreneurial sectors and neoliberal demagogues that this type of safe and harmless environmental activism will displace the more militant and agressive grassroots groups.
B-M's environmental services have benefited industrial polluters, such as the following:
Dirty Tricks and Front Groups
B-M was hired by the pharmaceutical corporation Eli Lilly and Monsanto subsidiary Nutra Sweet to promote the use of the genetically-engineered synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH. This hormone, which increases milk output in cows, is strongly opposed by dairy farmers and consumer and environmental activist groups. Their two main arguments are that 1) There is already a milk glut in the US. To bring more of it into the market would depress prices so severely that small dairy farmers would be run out of business; and 2) the use of rBGH has already been linked to severe health problems in cows and to calves born with grotesque birth defects.
B-M's campaign to neutralize the opposition to rBGH included the use of spies to penetrate activist groups. This fact became public when University of Vermont spokesperson Nicola Marro admitted that a mole had been placed in an anti-rBGH ad-hoc group headed by Jeremy Rifkin, a well- known critic of biotechnology and author of several books. Participants in the group singled out a woman named Diane Moser as a suspect. Moser, who attended a Washington DC meeting of the group, avoided small talk and read a paperback during the meeting. Vermont state representative Andrew Christiansen, who a ttended the meeting, told journalist John Dillon that "She said she represented housewives concerned about BGH...I had suspicions immediately. I've never seen anybody with a paperback coming to a me eting like that". When the activists called the number she left in the sign-up sheet, it rang in the Washington DC offices of Burson- Marsteller. B-M executive Timothy Brosnahan acknowledged that Moser was a B-M employee but denied knowing of any snooping on her part.
A freedom of information act (FOIA) request by activists Tim Atwater and John Stauber, who were then with Rural Vermont and the Foundation on Economic Trends respectively, uncovered a broader pattern of espionage against foes of rBGH. Atwater and Stauber's FOIA request uncovered documents of the quasi-governmental, farmer-funded National Dairy Board (NDB), which promotes rBGH. These documents revealed that the NDB hired the PR firm of Creswell, Munsell, Fultz & Zirbel (CMF&Z). This firm is a subsidiary of communications conglomerate Young & Rubicam (Y&R), which happens to be B-M's parent company. Given that Y&R represents rBGH backer Monsanto, Stauber concluded that "The day-to-day work is done out of Burson-Marsteller and CMF&Z. But I'm sure there's overall coordination with Young & Rubicam". Stauber is now editor of PR Watch, a newsletter that provides critical reporting on the PR industry, and is co-author, along with Sheldon Rampton, of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995).
B-M works for Hydro-Quebec (H-Q) promoting the James Bay 2 project. If the final stages of the construction of James Bay 2 are finished, it will become the most destructive hydroelectric project in the history of North America, disrupting the ecological balance of an area the size of France and permanently displacing the Cree and Inuit indigenous populations in the area. To undermine grassroots opposition to James Bay 2, B-M created a phony group of concerned citizens called the Coalition for Clean and Renewable Energy (CCRE), which was headed by Harvey Schultz, former head of New York City's department of environmental protection. According to John Dillon, "Schultz, Burson-Marsteller, and (CCRE) have hosted briefing sessions for academics, and business and community leaders-- opinion makers who can carry the good word about Hydro-Quebec back to their institutions".
The state of Vermont has proved particularly reluctant to buy electricity from H-Q because of pressure from local activists. In order to counteract this threat, B-M hired the Vermont law firm of Sherman & Kimbell to lobby the state government in favor of electricity purchases from H-Q. This law firm registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires America n lobbyists to list their foreign clients and how much they're being paid to represent them. However, since B-M itself has refused to register as a foreign agent for H-Q, most of its work for the James Bay 2 project remains a secret.
In 1990 the Mexican government hired B-M to sell NAFTA to the American public, media and politicians. B-M subcontracted this job to one of its subsidiaries, The Brock Group (TBG), a consulting firm that has done work for American Express, Bell Atlantic, Bacardi, Toyota and the Taiwanese government. TBG is headed by former senator, Republican National Committee chairman, US trade representative and labor secretary William Brock. He was certainly qualified for the job. As US trade representative, Brock engineered the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement, and began the negotiations that would eventually culminate in the signing of the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement.
William Brock co-chairs the Multilateral Trade Negotiations (MTN) Coalition, which was founded in 1990 to 'educate' the public-- and lobby for--the now-completed Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The coalition's members include American Express, General Motors, IBM, General Electric, Cargill, Citicorp, Procter & Gamble and other companies and trade associations. According to Malaysian activist Martin Khor Kok Peng, the MTN Coalition had a big influence on the 1990 G-7 Summit meeting held in Houston, USA, in which GATT figured prominently. At the Houston Summit, MTN held a high- profile press conference and released a report by an 'eminent persons group' on world trade.
The Contra Connection
One of TBG's top executives happens to be former Miami businessman and ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich. During the Reagan administration, the Cuban-born Reich headed the US state department's Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), whose task was to disseminate disinformation about the Sandinistas and discourage reporting critical of the contras. This outfit, whose operations were later found to be illegal by the US General Accounting Office, was staffed with five psychological warfare specialists from the 4th Psychological Operations Group of Fort Bragg. According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, "the OPD...helped spread a scurrilous story that some American reporters had received sexual favors from Sandinista prostitutes in return for writing slanted stories". In 1987, after the US Congress shut down the OPD, congressman Jack Brooks called it "an important cog in the (Reagan) administration's effort to manipulate public opinion and congressional action".
Interestingly enough, the OPD was conceived at an August 1983 meeting between then CIA director William Casey and a small group of PR industry executives. The meeting, whose purpose was to create a propaganda strategy for the Nicaraguan contras, was attended by B-M senior vice- president Kenneth D. Huszar and Philip Morris publicist James Bowling, who later moved to B-M. Their advice to Casey included the creation of a communications function within the White House, a recommendation that led to the creation of the OPD.
B-M, Mexico and the Neoliberal Project
B-M's success in insuring the passage of NAFTA encouraged the Mexican governing elite to retain the firm's services. It now has a luxurious office in the posh Colonia Anzures district on Mexico City that caters to customers like the Council of Businessmen, the National Stockbrokers' Association, the ministry of commerce and industrial development, and the Office of the President of the Republic. In addition to this, B-M parent Young & Rubicam rakes in over $100 million every year from Mexican clients. It is not an exaggeration to say that the credibility of the neoliberal project in the western hemisphere hinges on Mexico. Businessmen, politicians and neoliberal ideologues all over the hemisphere have touted Mexico as a symbol of capitalist success because of its privatization policy and its faithful adherence to the economic formulas prescribed by multilateral development banks (a.k.a. the Bretton Woods institutions). After the massive expenditure of political energy in getting NAFTA passed, business elites in both Mexico and the US are hard-pressed to put on a convincing performance in order to give credibility to future trade agreements. Bringing Guatemala and Chile into NAFTA has already become an agenda item.
However, neoliberal designs for Mexico are endangered by a series of crises, including the blatantly fraudulent elections of 1994, the embarassing collapse of the peso, revelations of drug-related corruption that compromise the Mexican elite all the way up to the president's office, a spate of political assassinations that seems to be beheading the ruling political party's leadership, and the popularity of the EjE9rcito Zapatista de LiberaciF3n Nacional (EZLN). B-M has a lot of work to do in Mexico. In the words of reporter Jon Reed, who investigated B-M's activities in Mexico, "Burson-Marsteller and other Mexican and transnational PR firms have demonstrated their effectiveness by working behind the scenes-- gauging public opinion, counseling government and corporate leaders, shaping media coverage, and facilitating elite-to-elite communications-- in short, guaranteeing that the inevitable upheavals in an authoritarian and unjust society do not interrupt business as usual".
Destroying Health Care
One of NAFTA's most nefarious consequences will be the dismantlement of Canada's government-run health care system. Since it places very strict limits on what domestic or foreign corporations can do, its more progressive features--such as compulsory licensing in order to control drug costs-- will eventually be challenged as barriers to trade. Once the Canadian system is gutted by NAFTA's notoriously secretive and undemocratic dispute resolution mechanisms, Canadian citizens will have no choice but to turn to the 'free market' for medical services and insurance.
However, American and Canadian pharmaceutical and insurance companies that want to crack open the Canadian market are frustrated by the fact that Canadians are very happy with their health care system. Worse yet, more and more Americans, especially in Vermont, are now calling for the introduction of single-payer health insurance in their country--a step in the direction of a Canadian-style system. This presents a grave problem for neoliberal demagogues, since it exposes the basic conflict between capitalism and democracy.
Enter Burson-Marsteller's health care unit, whose staff includes "a medical doctor/physician; former FDA (Food and Drug Administration) commissioner; former hospital administrator; former pharmaceutical communications executives; former non-profit communications chiefs; grassroots specialists, and former reporters" according to the senior editor of O'Dwyer's newsletter, which monitors the PR business.
B-M has plenty of experience in matters of public health. On behalf of client Philip Morris, B-M created the National Smokers' Alliance (NSA) to fight against smoking restrictions. According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, the NSA "is a state-of-the-art campaign that uses full- page newspaper ads, direct telemarketing, paid canvassers, (toll free) numbers and newsletters to bring thousands of smokers into its ranks each week. By 1995 NSA claimed a membership of 3 million smokers". The NSA is headed by B-M vice-president Thomas Humber and its members include B-M executives Pierre Salinger and Kennetz Rietz, as well as Peter Kelly, senior partner of B-M subsidiary Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly (see sidebar). In addition to this, B-M was hired by the A.H. Robbins company when its Dalkon Shield IUD contraceptive injured thousands of women who used it, and it is now currently promoting the 'virtues' of Eli Lilly's anti-depressant wonder drug Prozac.
The winners of the health care debate in the US were beyond any doubt the pharmeceutical transnational corporations (eleven of which are B-M clients) and the major insurance companies (which include B-M clients Met Life, Equitable Life, Aetna, State Farm and Mutal of Omaha). Now both businesses are vertically integrating themselves into superconglomerates known as health maintenance organizations (HMO's). According to Joyce Nelson, "During 1994 both the pharmaceutical industry and the private insurance industry consolidated into even bigger players on the health care scene, with B-M playing a major role in arranging the mergers among its clients". HMO's are not required to cover all illnesses or people, but can instead discriminate against elderly citizens and/or people with health problems in order to reduce operating costs.
What can we do?
The awesome power of the 'manufactured consent' of the mass media, created in no small part by PR firms like Burson-Marsteller, can be discouraging to many politically aware citizens. However, despair is what the PR business sells: despair from even the smallest possibility of positive social change from below. If we are to believe that organized citizens cannot effectively challenge corporate and government power, then the PR flacks will have truly triumphed. But, as Rampton and Stauber say in their book, "The fact that corporations and governments feel compelled to spend billions of dollars every year manipulating the public is a perverse tribute to human nature and our own moral values".
The author is a Puerto Rican journalist living in Vermont, where he is a guest lecturer and research associate at Goddard College's Institute for Social Ecology.
PR Watch. This quarterly newsletter, edited by John Stauber, provides a progressive and critical perspective on the public relations business. 3318 Gregory Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53711, USA.
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