This Is Your Brain on Public Relations

New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote last year to the effect that, "George W. Bush's harshest critics say he's dumb. But the real point is -- he thinks we're dumb."

Well, sure -- W. may be a few beers short of a six-pack -- but just how dumb does he think the American people are?

Perhaps part of the problem is that human beings seem to be hardwired for fraud.

George Lakoff, an author and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who calls himself a "cognitive activist," says this: "One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors -- conceptual structures. The frames are in the synapses of our brains -- physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don't fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored."

In other words, forget winning on the facts or the science. It's all about the story. And once stories take hold, they're hard to dislodge.

Recently the Environmental Working Group, a public-interest group based in the Beltway, leaked a fascinating story, a kind of story within a story about how to frame the environmental story. Actually it's about instructing conservative politicians how to lie through their teeth to sucker the public into doing the opposite of what people want. After all, survey after survey shows that Americans care deeply about the environment and are even willing to shell out money to take good care of it. So duping innocent people into harming the environment requires an occult technology of trickery.

The Environmental Working Group managed to obtain documents from a briefing book assembled by Frank Luntz, the top public opinion researcher for corporate lobbyists. Luntz was the architect of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, and he has a Who's Who client list of top lobbyists as well as many conservative politicians.

The briefing book is a playbook on how to frame the current wholesale rollback of environmental and public health protections while avoiding a stinging public backlash like the one that happened to Reagan's ignominious Secretary of the Interior James Watt in 1994. Watt became a political lightning rod by staring the corporate pillaging of the public trust in the eye and proclaiming: "Bring it on." The country felt otherwise; Watt went down in flames. So the new, improved manual counsels a stealth campaign to shine up a hall of mirrors where nothing is what it seems.

Luntz sternly warned Republican leaders that they were overreaching on the environment because 62 percent of Americans -- and even 54 percent of Republicans -- prefer to see Congress do more to protect the environment rather than cut regulations.

He further cautioned that they have an image problem to overcome: "A caricature has taken hold in the public imagination: Republicans seemingly in the pockets of corporate fat cats who rub their hands together and chuckle maniacally as they plot to pollute America for fun and profit. I don't have to remind you how often Republicans are depicted as cold, uncaring, ruthless -- even downright anti-social. The fundamental problem for Republicans when it comes to the environment is that whatever you say is viewed through the prism of suspicion."

Gee, how could that have happened?

As we enter the withering heat of the political season, there's enough spin coming out of Washington to knock the Earth off its axis. So here -- in Luntz's own words -- is an abbreviated guide to help you decipher the shape-shifting doublespeak we're already starting to hear.

The PR headline is: "The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier Future." Here are a few of the eight key messages in Luntz's briefing book for Republicans:

Number One: First assure your audience that you're committed to "preserving and protecting" the environment, but that "it can be done more wisely and effectively." Since many Americans believe Republicans do not care about the environment, you will never convince people to accept your ideas until you confront this suspicion and put it to rest. Absolutely do not raise economic arguments first.

Number Two: Provide specific examples of federal bureaucrats failing to meet their responsibilities to protect the environment.

Number Three: Your plan must be put in terms of the future, not the past or present. The environment is an area where people expect progress, and when they do not see progress, they become frustrated.

Number Six: If you must use the economic argument, stress that you are seeking "a fair balance" between the environment and the economy. Be prepared to specify and quantify the jobs lost because of needless, excessive or redundant regulations.

Number Eight: Emphasize common sense. In making regulatory decisions, we should use our best estimates and realistic assumptions, not the worst-case scenarios advanced by environmental extremists.

To fight off the ingrained bad-guy image, Luntz cuts to the chase:

"Indeed it can be helpful to think of environmental and other issues in terms of 'story.' A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth... The facts are beside the point. It's all in how you frame your argument."

To do this, Luntz says, "The most important step is to neutralize the problem and bring them around to your point of view by convincing them of your sincerity and concern. Any discussion of the environment has to be grounded in an effort to reassure a skeptical public that you care about the environment for its own sake -- that your intentions are strictly honorable."

Luntz goes on to describe "words that work" -- they're road-tested in focus groups. The three words Americans are looking for in an environmental policy are "safer, cleaner and healthier." The solution to global warming is "climate change." Global warming sounds too scary, but climate change sounds like you're going from New York to Florida. (The problem, of course, is that New York is going to be Florida, but later for that.)

Some other buzzwords we'll be hearing a lot are "conservationist" and "preserving and protecting." And you've already heard about the phony "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" initiatives. This is the larger story they're part of, in Luntz' words:

"Americans love the outdoors. The most popular federal programs today are those that preserve and protect our natural heritage through conservation of public lands and water through parks and open spaces.... Becoming a champion of national parks and forests is the best way to show our citizens that Republicans can be for something positive on the environment.

"You must explain how it is possible to pursue a common-sense or sensible environmental policy that 'preserves the gains of the past two decades' without going to extremes, and allows for new science and technologies to carry us even further. Give citizens the idea that progress is being frustrated by overreaching government, and you will hit a very strong strain in the American psyche."

Of the many horrifically destructive technologies of the 20th century, arguably the most dangerous of all is public relations. So when you hear this new stealth story coming at you, you'll know you're being framed. You'll know someone is trying to have public relations with you.

But trust me; it's not going to lead to a cleaner, safer, healthier future.

Kenny Ausubel is the founder of Bioneers.

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