Fakin' It: Tobacco Industry's PR Campaigns
Not long ago, he represented R.J. Reynolds on the front lines of its war against proposed smoking restrictions and taxes on tobacco products. Today he insists his name not be used, given all the threats he has received for championing the cause of the tobacco giant. Besides, he says, he signed a confidentiality statement.Secrecy aside, his mission, he says, was to help assemble the nation of smokers into something that would pass for a grassroots movement capable of fending off regulation, excise taxes, and any other threat to RJR's bottom line. A "field coordinator," he was one of some two dozen assigned to hold the line in their respective regions of the country.Each region, in fact, had a genuine popular uprising made up of legislators, physicians, consumers, parents -- all decrying the death and disease wrought by cigarettes. RJR's response, far from merely providing information to a voluntary movement of smokers' rights advocates, sounds more like conscription. Sometimes he had to contact hundreds of smokers to field a ragtag army of 20 or 30 people for a smokers' rights meeting. He likens it to the old Marxist practice of party-building, one cell at a time."You try not to ever let your link be known," he says. "If your name never pops up in the paper, you're doing your job." The more the smokers' rights movement could be presented as a spontaneous grassroots movement independent of the tobacco industry and its obvious vested economic interests, the greater the movement's credibility and chances for success. For this, RJR paid him handsomely -- more than $60,000 a year plus hefty bonuses. Not bad for part-time work.But when he fought anti-tobacco measures directly, outright legislative victories were few and far between. Often he had to settle for delaying the opposition, putting up roadblocks in what seemed the inexorable advance of the forces arrayed against those who manufacture, sell, and use cigarettes.This is the story of some of those who, over the last decade, helped RJR put in place an apparatus to help stem the erosion of tobacco's domestic market. (The movement was industry wide and still is.) It began with the organization of smokers' rights groups. But then, sometime around 1990, the tobacco industry -- and RJR in particular -- began to change its focus, embracing the anti-tax movement. The rationale was clear: Smokers' rights had achieved only limited success, and the stigma of being associated with the tobacco industry was on the increase.The stakes were obvious to all. "If you had a tax or a smoking restriction, the tax was always more important because it directly impacted how much money your company was making," said a former field coordinator. "In about the third year, there was an emphasis on coalition-building -- anti-tax groups were a natural. You didn't have to defend your position on tobacco because a tax is a tax is a tax to these guys. They don't care what it is."In the late 1980s, RJR had devised a formal plan to mobilize a smokers' rights movement, using a cadre of field coordinators. The plan called for bringing together political operatives from around the country -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- who were plugged into their party's machines, knew their way around computer mailing lists, and understood how to organize disparate entities into a significant force.The roster of field coordinators, past and present, reads like a who's who of political operatives: Tom Synhorst, now helping to run the Dole campaign in several Midwest states; Bob Schuman, a senior Republican strategist in Southern California who acted as political director of Jack Kemp's '88 presidential campaign and more recently of millionaire Michael Huffington's unsuccessful Senate bid; Karl Gallant, head of Majority Whip Tom DeLay's political action committee, ARMPAC; Frank Bickford, a campaign coordinator for Bob Dole; Elizabeth Gallagher, a one-time party worker for Gary Hart, then deputy field director for Sen. Joseph Biden's '88 presidential campaign; Matthew Dowd, a leading Texas Democratic strategist; Bill Paschall, a Little Rock, Arkansas, consultant to Democratic campaigns; and Martin Mayfield, formerly with the National Right to Work Committee and a consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.The entire operation was supervised from Winston-Salem -- RJR's headquarters in North Carolina -- by RJR Vice President Thomas Griscom, the former White House communications adviser to President Ronald Reagan and a one-time aide to former Senate GOP leader Howard Baker. Soon, the company drew in a closely associated partner, Walt Klein & Associates, which moved from Colorado to Winston-Salem. Griscom and his lieutenants, working with the Walt Klein group, issued directives to the field coordinators, advising them how to respond to an ever-rising tide of resistance to cigarettes -- local ordinances threatening to ban cigarettes from restaurants and other public places, federal excise and sin taxes, even a ban on smoking on domestic commercial flights.In one 1989 memo, from RJR supervisor Tim Hyde to his field coordinators, the company spells out one of several concurrent strategies: "Our program will now target members of the House Ways & Means, Senate Finance, House Energy and Commerce, and Senate Commerce committees (in that order). Our primary objective, though by no means our only one, is to prepare ourselves to fight the various proposed federal excise tax (FET) increases on cigarettes in the next year or so."To organize the troops, RJR assembled smokers in rented meeting rooms. A field coordinator would personally conduct the meeting -- at least in the initial stage -- and would instruct them in the use of the thick red-white-and-blue notebook titled "Smokers' Rights Leadership Manual." The slick collection of strategies comes complete with sample letters to public officials and local editors, petitions, and agendas for subsequent meetings. It even features a script to use verbatim when phoning local officials.But the recruits, known as "partisans" inside RJR, could be prickly and unsophisticated. For example, an internal RJR memo referred to a message left with the organization's communications center: "Helen S. is really angry that you haven't returned any of her calls about the three lighters you promised her a month ago. She also called you a Dickhead."And then there is this less-than-respectful reference to those RJR was attempting to recruit: "We all realize that some of our activists are odd birds, some with poor memories and the like, some with an imperfect understanding of what is feasible, some just loons." So much for the revolution.Equally difficult, report former field organizers, was the relentless grief they endured from anti-smokers. One particular incident has become well known among organizers. RJR had sent out letters to smokers throughout the area. Only a couple of dozen people showed up, less interested in mounting a political challenge than in filling their pockets with the cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters, and other freebies RJR had promised.At the end of the meeting, the field organizer looked out across a room of empty chairs and saw a woman sitting in the back, clutching a shoe box. He approached her and asked her who she was. "I want you to know my mother got an invitation to this meeting," she said. "She died of lung cancer. I brought my mother to your meeting." She held out the shoe box, presumably containing the ashes of her mother.As time went on and a massive federal excise tax on tobacco loomed, RJR found a natural ally to help its field coordinators avoid such nastiness: the anti-tax movement. RJR could support the movement with company resources, yet not have its efforts undermined because of an association with tobacco. The tobacco industry embraced anti-tax activism -- and largely shed its bipartisan mask, more fully aligning itself with the Republicans.One former field coordinator recalls that he and his colleagues offered anti-tax groups RJR's full panoply of organizational assistance -- faxes, sample letters to the editor, phone calling, computer lists, and so on. Field coordinators sought out anyone who might be opposed to taxes, ingratiating themselves with local chambers of commerce, heads of business, and political contributors. Internal RJR memos also hint that the attack on the proposed federal excise tax included a strategy to put the heat on legislators by having field coordinators work with RJR lobbyists.In their zeal, RJR strategists even studied what happened to former Sen. Bob Packwood whenever he returned to his home state of Oregon. Under intense criticism for alleged sexual harassment, he would be followed at every stop by demonstrators with placards protesting his conduct and calling for his resignation.Noting this, RJR conceived a plan to get the itineraries of various members of Congress who supported, or waffled on, proposed tax increases -- particularly a cigarette excise tax -- and to dog their every move with protesters carrying signs opposing any tax increase. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be a local protest, devoid of any connection to the tobacco industry. But in at least one instance, says a former field coordinator, the placards for a choreographed demonstration were literally FedExed from Winston-Salem.These days, RJR still staffs smokers' rights 1-800 lines five days a week. An operator takes down information about emerging anti-smoking threats and forwards it to a field coordinator. But "coalition-building," once reserved for smokers' rights groups, now has become synonymous with organizing and contributing to the efforts of anti-tax groups.Most of the RJR field representatives, while admitting their link to the tobacco company, privately acknowledge they're more effective if that relationship stays secret. "I usually don't get my name in the paper," says Bruce Hennes, a Cleveland-based consultant and field coordinator for RJR. One of the few remaining Democrats among the field operatives, he admits to getting ribbed by his Republican peers. "They call me baby-killer from time to time," he says.Hennes ducks questions about the precise nature of his work. "You'd better put down that Hennes declined to comment any further," he laughs. But Hennes says he has no moral reservations about representing tobacco. "I realize there are enormous societal implications about doing business with any company that has these resources, whether it's tobacco or IBM. I'm not trivializing tobacco, but I'm very comfortable with it."