Taking the Public Out of PR
With the publication of their 1995 book, "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You," Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber achieved the status of cult heroes among grassroots activists and alternative media types. Their scathing expose of the public relations industry, as well as their monthly newsletter PR Watch, put a spotlight on a pervasive, pernicious force that prefers to remain hidden as it attempts to manipulate public opinion and protect corporate America's bottom line at almost any cost. Rampton recently journeyed from his home in Madison, Wis., to southeast Michigan for a series of talks sponsored by the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor. Rampton sat down with the Metro Times reporter Curt Guyette to talk about an industry that would seem to have Darth Vader as its spiritual father.MT: Of all the possible areas in life that you could have focused your energy on, why did you and Stauber choose the PR industry? Rampton: What we've found out is that PR is something so widely used right now that if you're involved in any kind of public policy issue, especially as an activist, you aren't going up against the corporation directly; you're going up against their PR firm. And so for us, monitoring the PR industry is kind of like being at the center of a spider web; you get to feel the pulse of what's happening on all kinds of different issues because you see what's setting off tingles within the PR network and that tells you what industry is really concerned about at any given time.MT: What do you see as the hot issues right now? Rampton: I think food disparagement is a big thing.MT: You mean the spate of laws that make it easy for the food industry to sue individuals for libel if someone publicizes that fact that, say, meat is filled with toxic chemicals, things like that? Rampton: Yeah. The food industry in general is just scared to death ever since Alar, really, that was kind of like their Alamo or something. Their Vietnam -- no more Alars. And there is this big push to label that criticizes the food safety or environmental safety, health risks -- it's not just food safety, but in general anything that criticizes health or environmental risks that deal with industry practices they regard as an irrational food scare or public health scare engineered by sensationalist activists and an irresponsible media. So you have organizations like the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition and a host of others that are trying to put out the whole philosophy that the public doesn't understand sound science and that we have to counter that with some kind of organized public education campaign. I think that's really hot. The other thing that's real hot and kind of goes along with that is tort reform. In their view, the greedy attorneys and greedy plaintiffs are out there trying to take advantage of these scares by filing lawsuits. So they want to limit the amount that anyone can collect. Of course, that brings you not just the food industry and the chemical industry, but also the tobacco industry and the insurance industry. So there are some real major players pushing that. Those, I think, are the ones that are really hot right now.MT: One of the things that your book points out is that instead of bringing their clients' point of view to the public debate, the primary job of these PR firms often is to prevent the other side from getting its views heard at all. Rampton: Right. They really want to avoid debate. If you take, for example, the whole issue of land application of sewage sludge that we did a chapter on, if you look at their PR campaign, their goal is to make beneficial use of biosolids, as they term it, noncontroversial by the year 2000. There's no debate. It's not being talked about. They advise against that, because that's going to stir up a debate that they don't think they can win. It's, rather, just come up with different words. Don't call it sludge anymore; call it biosolids. No one knows what that means. It's hard to have a debate about biosolids. What's fundamentally going on here is a fear of democracy, a fear that the public is a bunch of irrational rabble who can't be dealt with on the basis of facts and reasoning. You have to treat them as irrational children, basically, and control them and manipulate them, and coddle them along with packaged messages.MT: And the trick is to use sleight of hand and disguise the true source of a message, to make it look like it's coming from somewhere else? Rampton: Right. I think if you want to identify one single thing that's a standard tactic of public relations, it's the third-party technique. Get someone who doesn't look like your client to deliver your client's message. If the message is you don't want vehicle emission standards tightened, then what you do is you get den mothers coming out to say that they need big cars so they can take the Cub Scouts to baseball practice.MT: The industry seems so pervasive and pernicious. Does it ever seem overwhelming to you? Rampton:. We begin the final chapter of the book with a quote from Alex Carey, this Australian scholar who wrote a series of really brilliant essays that were collected after his death in a book called Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, in which he sort of analyzed a lot of the propaganda techniques that are used in democracy. I think he succinctly summed up the situation the world's in right now when he said that the 20th century is characterized by three phenomena. First, the growth of democracy. Second, the growth of corporate power. And third, the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. When you look at it that way, you understand why the public relations industry has had to come into existence and why they're spending $10 billion a year right now to try to manipulate public opinion. It's because they're very afraid of what's going to happen to their power and privileges if public opinion is not manipulated. If you think of the world from the perspective of your situation as an individual in all of what's going on out there, it could be very daunting. But if you think of it from the point of view that there's a whole country here of people who may not all be mobilized and active in dealing with this, but there are a fair number who are, then it's not quite so daunting.MT: Part of the reason you're here in Michigan now is to draw attention to what's going on regarding the PR industry on the environmental front. Is that correct? Rampton: Right. I was asked to come up by the Ecology Center to talk about the way PR is related to environmental issues. The bottom line, of course, is that if you're a corporation, or for that matter the government, you have this ongoing drive to keep down costs. And if you have to pay for the full cost of cleaning up the mess involved in producing your product, that raises your cost. It's cheaper to dump your effluent into the river than it is to try and convert it into something that's not effluent anymore. The real solution, which is what environmentalists are saying, is put the cost back on the source, make them pay the costs, then you won't have these massive disposal problems later. It's cheaper in the long run but, obviously, for industry it's cheaper to clean up their image than it is to clean up their act. So they've got all these sophisticated ways of cleaning up their image, which may range from, for example, Monsanto giving out free herbicide in low-income neighborhoods to help with weed control, to advertising that they are using Roundup to keep down grass around fences that protect the endangered black rhino in Africa. These are real examples.MT: Or Chevron's "people do" commercials, except they conceal the fact the only reason they're protecting some habitat or endangered species is because the government forced them to as a mitigation measure, and at the same time their lobbyists are fighting against those same rules... Rampton: On the other hand, there is something positive in the fact that they feel they need to respond to environmentalists, even if they're offering halfway measures. It means that they know they're on notice. At some level, they're under the gun and being forced to respond. The question now is, how do we turn up the heat?MT: What do you think the answer is? Rampton: To begin with, everyone needs to read our book (laughs). I really think the answers have to come from a lot of people trying out things at the local level all over the place and seeing what works. Networking. You need some kind of a national leadership and movement, but I think building leadership at the local level is really a lot more important. I feel more comfortable explaining the problems than putting myself up as a guru with solutions.MT: The problems are significant, but just look at the amount of money they have on their side. How do you think it will all play out? Rampton: One of two things is going to happen. Either the industry is going to become so adept at manipulation that we won't be able to organize against it, which I think is unlikely. Or people will become progressively more informed and activated about doing something about it.MT: It's a machine that seems fairly relentless. Rampton: Yeah, it's like that line from the first Terminator movie, describing the robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, something like: "You have to understand, it's a machine. It doesn't feel pity. It doesn't feel pain. It doesn't feel guilt. It can't be reasoned with. It can't be negotiated with, and it absolutely will not stop until you are dead." And that's not a bad description of how relentless the PR industry is. We did a bit awhile back about what they're doing around the issue of chlorine, and how the main activity of this one PR spy firm is collecting dossiers on activists so they can report on what groups like the Ecology Center are doing to Dow. We had a whistleblower provide a number of internal memos related to their work on chlorine and the effect that chlorinated chemicals are having, as endocrine disrupters, on sperm counts and human and animal reproduction, and what they say in these documents is, well, environmentalists are trying to play on the emotions of the public by appealing to their concern for the survival of future generations. What an irrational thing to do! Their whole report talked about the scientific issues that are being raised by environmental organizations. They don't dispute any of them. They just say, well, they're talking about reproduction and children because people are emotionally sensitive about children.MT: What's up next?Rampton: We're working on a book about mad cow disease -- how the epidemic in England was caused by the feeding of rendered cow back to other cows, animal cannibalism. As we speak, that practice is still ongoing in the United States. So we're doing a book about mad cow that will focus on what's happened in England and what's been going on inside USDA and FDA that's prevented them from taking action. The main thing that's prevented them from taking and action, obviously, has been the meat industry. So the title of our book is going to be "Cannibal Meat." And it'll be out this fall.MT: It sounds like you have a lot of hope. Rampton: One of the things that to me is very important is the idea that you can trace back to the Founding Fathers perhaps, but in any case it's deeply entrenched in our mythology of ourselves as a nation, the idea that we are a nation of citizens out doing our civic duty, and you have to do that in order to live in a democracy. I know there are people who are very apathetic and cynical about politics, and that's understandable; but I think you kind of get what you create as a society. And there are a lot of opportunities to become involved and effective as an activist. I think being an activist is just part of everyone's civic duty and it ought to be a lot of fun. I would just want to cast my vote in favor of hope by being an activist and just by encouraging people to do that.