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Unspinning the globe

What does Public Relations mean to you? Sharp suits, beguiling smiles, off the record hints, misinformation and lies?

May 1, 2003
15 min read

Public Relations has a bad image. The dismissive phrase ‘it’s just PR’ encapsulates a lot of what people everywhere feel about PR. It is about lies, manipulation and spin. Not about substance or reality. The phrase also suggests that PR is something ephemeral, easily seen through, perhaps as insubstantial as candyfloss. But such an interpretation vastly under-rates the contemporary importance of PR. Just as importantly it misdirects our attention from the very wide role that PR plays to its role in media manipulation.

Don’t get me wrong, PR is crucially important in the manipulation of the news and entertainment media and is becoming more so in direct relation to the commercialisation of the media. But in a way the term public relations is misleading, because the vast majority of PR is hidden from the public. PR is much more important than just media spin. It is the very lifeblood of the global capitalist system. PR can only flourish as a profession and an industry in a society run on market principles. The further a society moves away from neo-liberal dogma the less role there is for the PR industry and vice versa.

In France and Germany, where social democracy retains a precarious foothold, the PR market is proportionately much smaller than in the UK, which has the second biggest PR industry in the world (the US has the biggest). Mrs Thatcher’s former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham has perceptively urged PR people to: ‘defend capitalism or the PR industry dies’

So what is PR if not just media spin? As the sociologist Leslie Sklair has noted ‘global capitalism needs to be politically active to sustain its project’ and there is certainly abundant evidence that global capitalism engages in such activity. In so far as these activities impinge on the image and status of corporations they fall under the rubric of public relations. These include familiar activities like marketing, the point of which is selling a product, and media relations: leaking, briefing, spinning and manipulating the media. But they also include lobbying, the classic insider’s subterranean activity which mostly occurs without any recourse to media spin.

Then there are the burgeoning fields of community relations and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The former may make use of local media, but the real business is to keep local communities sweet and blunt the edge of campaigning groups. Such activities involve carrots (e.g. money for local projects) and sticks (e.g. manipulation of discussion and marginalisation of critical voices).

Of course investment in such programmes never amounts to the same as the value of the natural resources or labour they have extracted or used. BP is one of the biggest ten corporations in the world and presents itself as one of the most responsible corporations in the world. Yet its ‘community giving’ budget in 2001 was just 0.1% of its £9.448 billion pre tax profits.

CSR may involve media relations work to draw attention to the good deeds of community relations and highlight positive ‘corporate citizenship’. As campaigners point out much of the spin associated with CSR is false in that most corporations do not live up to their self declared commitments. But like the iceberg most CSR activity is invisible. Counter-intuitively, it is often an active attempt to increase corporate domination rather than simply a defensive ‘image management’ operation. CSR has been around for some time, but has taken on new meanings and urgency as global structures of governance have begun to emerge.

Another new discipline, almost entirely created by the neo-liberal reforms of the last twenty years is investor relations. The wholesale privatisation and liberalisation of Western and other economies have made ‘shareholders’ more important than ‘citizens’. Again media may play a part here, but largely the business pages, rather than mainstream news reports.

Investor relations were key to the Enron fiasco, described as the ‘unsung villains’ of the affair by Investment News. Even the PR trade press agrees: ‘The abuse of earnings reports has reached such a stage that the SEC has warned companies that they face legal action if they continue & Who puts out all these misleading and confusing reports? Investor Relations professionals’.

Across the whole range of the activities of transnational corporations (TNCs), there are now a myriad of communication professionals whose entire careers are dedicated to advancing the political, economic and cultural power of the corporations. It is not an overstatement to describe these activities as a daily conspiracy against democracy.

Global PR

PR has globalised along with corporations. Wherever TNCs alight in the world in any significant numbers they appoint PR staff. Amongst the earliest to expand in this way was the oil and gas industries, which globalised in pursuit of new oil reserves. In Singapore the oil industry brought PR people with it when the city state was still a British colony. Nigeria has the biggest PR industry in Africa, largely as a result of oil, and the Middle East swarms with PR people, many based in the PR hub of Dubai.

The two greatest centres for lobbying power in the world are Brussels and Washington, DC. PR is more dispersed but wherever there is global capital there is global PR (or its subsidiaries and affiliates). Thus PR centres include New York, Los Angeles, London, Brussels, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and increasingly, since China’s accession to the WTO, Beijing. In Brussels, according to conservative estimates, there are now 5 corporate lobbyists for every EU official.

PR consultancies have also globalised. In recent years significant earnings have come from outside the US and UK for the first time. The global PR industry clusters around the centres of global power. The biggest global PR firms are hardly household names, but their parent companies are even less well known.

Top ten PR consultancies in the world 2001

| Rank 2001 | Company | Ultimate Owner | Worldwide Revenue $US million 2001 |

| 1 | Fleishman-Hillard | Omnicom | 342.84 |

| 2 | Weber Shandwick Worldwide | Interpublic | 334.96 |

| 3 | Hill and Knowlton | WPP | 306.26 |

| 4 | Burson-Marsteller | WPP | 303.86 |

| 5 | Citigate | Incepta | 243.93 |

| 6 | Edelman PR Worldwide | Independent | 238.04 |

| 7 | Porter Novelli Int’l | Omnicom | 238.04 |

| 8 | BSMG Worldwide | Interpublic | 192.19 |

| 9 | Ogilvy PR Worldwide | WPP | 169.45 |

| 10 | Ketchum | Omnicom | 168.24 |

These are huge communication conglomerates. In 2001 the big three were numbered amongst the Fortune 500 biggest global corporations with market values of between $10-20 billion. For example, Interpublic, one of the big three, has offices in more than 130 countries in five continents. It made $6.7 billion in 2001, 43% of which came from outside the US. WPP, parent of the best known PR agencies Hill and Knowlton and Burson Marstellar, numbers over 300 of the Fortune 500 amongst its clients and over half of the NASDAQ index of tech stocks.

In the last decade there has been an unprecedented surge of concentration and conglomeration, bringing together advertising, marketing, market research, PR, lobbying and a host of other communications services. In 1991, 22 of the 25 top global PR firms were independent. In 2001, there were only 6. The conglomeration and concentration of ownership has been so marked that in 2001, for the first time, the biggest four accounted for over half (54%) of the global advertising, marketing, PR and lobbying market. That is more concentration than in most other industries and significantly more than the television and media industries.

PR consultancies and corporate PR personnel attempt to maximise shareholder value. They engage in two basic types of activity: first, helping to promote consumer culture in general and consumption of their own products in particular, and, second, securing the business conditions for this. The latter means, on the one hand, lobbying for free trade and putting in place the architecture of neo-liberalism, and on the other, protecting themselves from criticism. The protection function involves corporations in some of their most controversial work, particular in relation to environmental degradation, human rights, poverty and class inequality.

All over the world wherever corporate interests are threatened by citizen groups, trades unions, or governments, PR is implicated in manipulation and attempting to ‘engineer consent’. Among the early examples are the use in the 1950s of the father of PR, Edward Bernays, by United Fruit (now Chiquita) in their (successful) campaign to undermine the elected Guatemalan government with the aid of the CIA; and the use of PR consultants Burson Marstellar by Nigerian state/corporate interests in the crushing of Biafra in the 1960s.

More recently, Burson Marstellar have seen action all around the globe protecting corporate interests in relation to Three Mile Island, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, promoting GM food and working for the WBCSD (see box 2). Their work for Philip Morris in setting up fake scientific front groups to distort debate over tobacco has been exposed on the internet as a result of the class action lawsuit in the US which forced the release of millions of company documents. These examples from one PR firm are merely the tip of the iceberg of the documented cases.

As Eveline Lubbers shows in her frightening book Battling Big Business (Green Books), the evidence suggests that spin and media management are only the most visible and relatively legitimate end of the spectrum of activities. Corporations such as McDonalds, Shell, BP and Nutrasweet and others hire monitoring and intelligence agencies to collate information and spy on activist groups. The spies in the McDonalds case were so numerous that they on occasion outnumbered the protestors and reported on each other.

Two years ago it was revealed that BP and Shell had hired a corporate intelligence company that spied on Greenpeace in Germany using a left-wing filmmaker as an undercover infiltrator. In New Zealand a treasure trove of documents from Shandwick (now the second largest PR firm in the world) were leaked to Nicky Hager. (See Secrets and Lies, Craig Potton/Common Courage). They revealed Shandwick’s use of the full range of manipulative tactics aimed at justifying the destruction of New Zealand’s native forests. Given the obsessive secrecy of PR companies and corporations, the documented cases must be a mere taste of the full smorgasbord of PR manipulation and misinformation.

In the area of food, health and the environment, corporations are particularly active in setting up front groups disguising their own role and in making use of science as a resource to pursue their interests. The trouble with discussing front groups, lobbying coalitions and the like is that there are just so many of them. Greenpeace produced a directory of anti-environmental organisations over a decade ago including over 50 separate, mostly US groups. This is a small snapshot of a much bigger and rapidly changing field. All over the world TNCs organise into peak business associations, and lobbying coalitions or pour money into allegedly ‘independent’ front groups.

Avenues of corporate influence

The Scottish Parliament Business Exchange

The SPBE is promoted as an educational exchange allowing members of the Scottish parliament to learn more about all kinds of business. All corporate participants are required to sign a letter affirming they will not use the scheme for lobbying. In practice the exchange is dominated by TNCs who pay £6000 to join and three quarters of those taking part are full time lobbyists!

The Science Media Centre

The Science Media Centre is a London based media resource which claims that it is ‘independent’, but is in practice mainly funded by big business including the biotech industry. This might in theory not skew the output of the Centre, but in practice the SMC does not live up to its remit to represent the ‘full spectrum’ of opinion, tending to err towards versions of science promoted by corporations and to pro-corporate scientists.

The European Round Table of Industrialists

A peak business association of around 40 members, who are ‘Chairmen and Chief Executives of large multinational companies, representing all sectors of industry, which have their headquarters in Europe and also significant manufacturing and technological presence worldwide.’ Membership is by invitation only. Almost all observers agree that the ERT is an immensely powerful body, which is well integrated into the EU machinery and has a key role in framing EU policies and directives.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development

Swiss based peak business association of 150 TNCs dedicated to presenting business as environmentally friendly. It has played a key role in reshaping the debate on sustainable development in corporate friendly direction and was a key actor in lobbying for type II (voluntary) outcomes at the Johannesburg summit.

All of these bodies have different organisational models, membership rules, relations with decision makers, target audiences and methods. But underneath their variegated surface all of them are means by which corporations protect and advance their interests. Some organise at the national or sub-state level such as the SPBE and SME, while others are transnational, such as the ERT and WBCSD. Some predominantly focus on managing the media, in the classic tradition of public relations, while others, focus on insider lobbying well away from the media. Others promote ‘partnerships’ and ‘mutual understanding’ between corporations and politicians or NGOs and community groups.

The agenda of PR

The underlying agenda behind all these activities is the same: free markets, ‘flexible’ labour forces and, most importantly, the continuing retreat of government regulation. The new global economic architecture constructed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (and its successor the Free Trade Area of the Americas), the WTO, GATS and the like did not emerge by accident or as a necessary product of inevitable processes of globalisation. They were fought, struggled and lobbied for by corporations and their globalising state allies.

As John McArthur, the publisher of Harpers magazine, shows in his detailed and revelatory book The Selling of Free Trade (University of California Press), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed only after an extremely hard fought campaign by the Business Roundtable and its allies the Clinton administration. The full range of promotional techniques, from political spin, and advertising to lobbying, horse trading, and intense political pressure were used as a means of allowing capital to make use of the low wage Mexican labour force.

Mostly this type of activity is not open to public examination. Yet all over the world the denizens of corporate promotion work quietly and covertly to push the same agenda. In Europe one current buzz phrase is ‘horizontal subsidiarity’; at the global level it is ‘type II outcomes’. Just as vertical subsidiarity requires decisions to be made at the lowest possible (local, national, EU) level, so horizontal subsidiarity requires decisions to be taken at levels lower than government. If regulation can take place at the voluntary level then the European Commission should not be involved. Although this can be defined as self-determination by some on the left in the EU, the usage it carries in corporate/EC discourse in Brussels is quite different. Here EC officials tell business lobbyists at Brussels conferences that they ‘can expect and should demand’ horizontal subsidiarity.

At the UN, the terminology is different, but the agenda the same. At the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development earlier this year the corporations lobbied fiercely and successfully against type I and in favour of type II outcomes. The former are of course binding regulation and the latter voluntary self-regulation. This agenda is one of the key reasons why corporations have become keen on developing partnerships with charities and pressure groups such as Oxfam or WWF. If they can demonstrate ‘voluntary agreements’ with civil society, binding regulation will be avoided. In both these cases and in many others across the world the same agenda is being pursued. All of this goes on behind the backs of the public, an indication that democracy is already in a parlous state and that PR professionals aim to make it much, much worse.

But it needn’t be this way, change is possible. We can catalogue and expose front groups as many activists do, but we also need to raise the profile of the PR industry in public debate and (where we can) in the mainstream media. The key to this is the connections between the targets of all the various single-issue campaigns. Time and again activists discover the people behind the front group are PR agencies and corporations. It has taken years, but the tobacco industry is on the run (in the US and UK anyway) and other industries engaged in environmental destruction or human rights abuses can go the same way. There is a need for groups to come together to target the system more generically as Mark Curtis argued in October’s Red Pepper. The role of the PR industry is potentially a point of unity around which many groups can congeal.

Parts of the anti-globalisation movement are well attuned to the activities of the PR industry, but much of the work of corporations and their spinners and lobbyists remains shrouded in mystery. Fortunately there is a burgeoning interest in researching and exposing PR. Some of the most prominent groups are listed below. These activities need to more closely linked and globalised. but this can only happen if many more people become active in researching and exposing the PR strategies of the powerful.

Resources on PR and lobbying:

  • Center for Responsive Politics (US)
  • Corporate Europe Observatory (NL)
  • Corporate Watch (UK)
  • CorpWatch (US)
  • PR Watch (US)
  • Public Citizen (US)

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