issue 314 - July 1999
It’s just a short step from political propaganda to corporate public relations –
Richard Swift weighs the implications for democratic debate.
Alberta’s romance with cowboy capitalism has proved a resilient one. Oil-rich and staunchly conservative, it is hard to find a more corporate-friendly jurisdiction – certainly not in Canada, perhaps not in all of North America – than here, in the eastern shadow of the Rocky Mountains. The corporations, particularly the oil and gas industry, are most grateful. To hear them tell the story, as their public-affairs flacks are only too happy to do, a prosperous partnership is based on responsible self-regulation and ‘freeing enterprise’ for the good of all. And it’s not just words. The PR people point to a corporate-led volunteerism which supports everything from local theatre and museums to large hospitals and universities. Oil men – they are, almost invariably, men – sit on Boards of Governors, organize charity drives. They have wiped the mud off their cowboy boots long ago to become polite corporate citizens. Some companies, like Shell, present themselves as great defenders of nature and endangered species. Others, like Syncrude – the first company to go into Alberta’s vast oil-shale fields, where reserves exceed those of Saudi Arabia – champion native art and culture.
But trouble is brewing in paradise. Wayne Johnston’s voice breaks frequently as he tells me the story of his dealings with Big Oil, an unwelcome guest on his ranch in the Alberta foothills for more years than he cares to remember. Johnston is a sturdy, self-reliant man now plainly agitated. He sits at one end of the kitchen table, his wife Illa at the other. _Wayne rhymes off the names of all the companies he’s had to deal with over the years. Some, such as Shell and Amoco, are major global players. Others I’d never even heard of. The number of them here has exploded from 70 to more 1,200 in the last decade. The pipeline leaks were bad enough – the Johnstons claim to have lost 30 head of cattle from one of them. But what really bothers them is the air pollution. It’s associated with the ‘flaring’ of superfluous but deadly sulfuric ‘sour’ gas. The Johnstons have had a lot of health problems with their cattle, particularly with pregnancies and calving. They are also worried about their own health.
Ila can hardly speak. I ask her about her persistent pneumonia. She shakes her head: ‘My lungs just aren’t what they used to be.’ As if on cue, the phone rings and she goes over to answer it. ‘That was them again. We’ll be getting intermittent flaring from compressor number nine, which is just across the fence.’
Rural Alberta is mostly farmland owned by people like the Johnstons. The province is at the heart of Canada’s oil patch and is dotted with hundreds of thousands of oil installations. It has been drilled with more than 230,000 wells, plays host some 760 gas plants and is crisscrossed by 300,000 kilometers of pipeline. Farmers simply have no choice. In return for financial compensation – for loss of land use, and sometimes intermittent work tending oil facilities – they have to let the companies in. After all, this is a $26-billion industry. It owns or leases subsurface rights, provides 20 per cent of the provincial budget and is a big backer of _Premier Ralph Klein’s ruling Conservatives.
If the farmers fight back, as the Johnstons have done, they are quickly branded as ‘troublemakers’ trying to ruin the productive partnership of industry and community that is the centrepiece of energy-industry public relations. Then the stick replaces the carrot. Companies refuse to pay compensation. Whispering campaigns isolate ‘troublemakers’. According to Wayne: ‘There are some neighbours that just try and avoid me now. Most of them have the idea that you can’t do nothing, so you might as well collect the couple of bucks they give you and forget it.’
Martha Kostuch has learned first-hand how the industry plays hard ball. Martha is a vet in the town of Rocky Mountain House, known locally as ‘Rocky’ because of its fabulous backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Kostuch is a persistent thorn in the industry’s side. She has seen the effects of air pollution on the health of the cattle from near by ranches; effects that are now being verified by scientific studies. She says that, despite the PR spin by Big Oil to appear friendly to farmers and nature alike, ‘their image has always been poor’.
Kostuch has been involved in several law suits and studies about shoddy environmental practices or inadequate legal processes. One of these efforts led to an investigation of the Shell gas plant in Caroline following complaints about poor air quality. Kostuch approached some 25 experts in the province to help her study these effects, but no dice: ‘I was told, if they work for me they’ll never work in this province again.’ Kostach says that behind the companies’ sunny ‘partnership’ image lurks a strategy of ‘intimidating, blacklisting and threatening’. She points to calls in the middle of the night, locks changed on the doors of meeting halls, out-of-court settlements with gag clauses to keep people quiet. Still Kostach is optimistic. She feels industry has to listen more these days because ‘the public is simply less willing to accept impacts, and more willing to speak out’.
Things have indeed gotten very lively in rural Alberta. In the Peace River district the Alberta Energy Company (AEC) is facing off with a farmer named Weibo Ludwig, a leader of the communal Trickle Creek Farm and an outspoken critic of Big Oil. ‘The Peace’ has witnessed a spate of eco-sabotage – sometimes known as ‘monkey-wrenching’ – of isolated oil-company facilities. Although nothing has been proved, the industry plainly believes that Ludwig is involved. He too has cause for complaint: his farm is surrounded by gas flares. Already there have been three miscarriages and one still birth amongst the women at Trickle Creek.
Then, last fall, an AEC oil site was bombed. Six days later the company sponsored a tour of local communities by an ‘anti-terrorism’ expert from the Mackenzie Institute in Toronto – one of those ‘strategic studies’ institutes that provide a haven for right-wing propagandists. According to Ludwig’s Edmonton lawyer, Richard Secord: ‘Some of the locals were ready to go down the road and lynch Weibo from the nearest tree.’ The industry strategy of defaming and isolating critics reached a new level. Shortly after that, Ludwig and another Trickle Creek farmer were arrested on various ‘soft’ conspiracy charges relating to sabotage.
When Richard Secord tried to get his clients out on bail, he told me, he was _shocked to read the Crown’s disclosure information – the bomb had been planted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), in collaboration with the AEC. This had been done, they claimed, in an attempt to catch the saboteurs. The shit hit the fan. According to Secord: ‘The media was particularly annoyed, having chartered a plane and being toured around the bomb site by both the company and the cops.’ Oil pollution became the main story, rather than ‘ecological terrorists’ – a ‘deniable’ local problem turned into to a Canada-wide issue. The spin strategy had gone badly off the rails and turned into a PR nightmare for the industry.
Things got even uglier. When I turned on the TV news, back in Toronto, I was confronted with the image of Ludwig’s bombed-out truck in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn in downtown Edmonton. Apparently, persons unknown had planted a bomb in the truck and blown it up, with Ludwig only yards away.
Out in Alberta I had met with the Rimby and District Clean Air People, one of the growing number of groups that has sprung up in rural areas to address issues of oil pollution. I asked how they felt when the story of the RCMP/AEC bombing broke. Answers varied. For some it was outrage. Others were awed by the power of an industry that can enlist the police, the government or whoever in their cause. Some felt the industry as a whole would not condone such activities and had been embarrassed by them. None of them was in the least discouraged from carrying on their own activism. Their frustration focused as much on the failure of under-funded government regulators as it did on the oil companies themselves. According to Gord Laxer of the Parkland Institute, a research centre at the University of Alberta, public-royalty rates on oil and gas are three times higher in Norway and 1.75 times higher in Alaska. _Yet Alberta’s right-wing Premier always insists: ‘We have no revenue problem, only a spending problem.’
What, then, does the case of the Alberta have to tell us about corporate PR? One lesson is that most PR strategies have two faces. While industry may prattle on about partnership and responsibility, come a challenge and the gloves are off. Dialogue dissolves. ‘Isolate and Intimidate’ is the name of the game.
In a sense, we have all come to live in Alberta. The vast increase in corporate and government PR worldwide means that those with power are falling over themselves to let us in on the good things they are doing for us. They are also quick to disparage both the intelligence and the motives of their critics. Billions are spent each year on this effort. The New York-based O’Dwyer’s Annual Directory of Public Relations Firms lists hundreds of companies with offices around the world. Interspersed among the corporate profiles are ads promising the world to perspective clients – ‘Reach the press without stress’ or ‘Your PR agency has an office in Cairo run by a guy named Al’. Overheads are low – a computer bank, some telephones, a bit of high-priced ‘creative’ – so profits are high. Over the last two decades, growth in this sector has run at three times the level in the overall economy. And the actual PR firms are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. To get a complete picture, you have to include the PR departments inside every major corporation, a growing industry of professional spin-doctors on whom most politicians with any cash pin their hopes, a plethora of pollsters, tele-marketers, focus-group organizers, think tanks and related ‘policy consultants’. It’s an enterprise whose collective purpose is to ‘administer’ democracy, eliminating risks for clients. The key ‘project’ is not to reform reality, but to manage our perceptions of it.
All this adds up to a propaganda effort of major proportions, undermining the cherished democratic belief that each citizen has the right to make up their own mind. When George Orwell wrote 1984 back in the late 1940s he saw the major threat to democracy as a kind of heavy-handed totalitarianism. Brainwashing was backed up by the fear of police jackboots on the stairs. This is the classic image of propaganda usually associated with the heavy hand of the state. But PR gurus have transformed the propaganda industry, making both of its two faces much more subtle and user-friendly. Positive images of home and family, a trusted public figure, the wisdom of your grandparents or the inevitable bounty of progress are used to convince. Negative threats are to our economic well-being, if we get too squeamish about downsizing, privatization, environmental problems or child labour in Southeast Asia.
The original Orwellian nightmare still holds true in parts of the South. In places like Burma and Sudan, pro-regime propaganda is of the classic variety; a tightly-controlled media, streets adorned with huge billboards setting out the parameters of acceptable thought. Yet even the fundamentalists who rule Sudan have adapted modern ‘image’ techniques – like martyr programs on TV – to ‘celebrate’ those who have fallen in their endless war on the south of the that unhappy country.
Unsavory regimes these days hire the best talent available to spruce up their international image. Among countless others, the two PR giants Burson-Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton have done particularly well out of what has come to be known as ‘the torturers’ lobby’. Their job is to represent regimes such as Turkey, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya – or the military regime in Argentina during its Dirty War, when the ‘disappeared’ were being snatched off the streets and dropped from helicopters over the Atlantic.1 The PR technique is simple enough: minimize the human-rights abuses, talk about it as a ‘complex’, two-sided story, play up efforts at reform, speak of all the positive ‘modernization’ that is going on and – most of all – the crucial economic stake ‘we’ all have in Nigerian oil or Indonesian markets. If possible, it is best to put these words in the mouth of some apparently ‘neutral’ group of ‘concerned citizens’, or a lofty institute with academic credentials.
A lot of this kind of PR is done directly by the major corporations that have a stake in the South. The recent decision of Shell Oil to spend $32 million cleaning up its image, after widespread environmental damage and complicity in human rights-abuses in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, is a classic case. The alter-image-not-reality approach has lead to an international campaign by the Boycott Shell Organization which sends postcards to CEO Jack E Little demanding: ‘Why is Shell spending $32 million to clean up its image, not its mess, in Nigeria?’
Perhaps the biggest – and certainly the most expensive – PR effort on a Southern issue was the campaign undertaken by the Wexler Group for the ratitifaction of the Northern American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico in 1993. Wexler worked for a coalition of Fortune 500 companies to reassure a worried US public about job losses and environmental deterioration. NAFTA’s broken promises were so under-reported that Project Censored named them ‘one of the top-ten censored stories of the year’, just one year after Wexler’s successful sales job.2
The Australian analyst of corporate propaganda, Alex Carey, divides it up into ‘grassroots’ and ‘treetops’ varieties.3 The first – like that in the
Alberta oil patch – is either aimed at local communities or broad public manipulation. The second is primarily aimed at élite decision-makers. Together they make up a huge amount of public discourse on major political issues. Corporations hold that this is a legitimate cost of doing business. But it is hardly a contest of equals. The massive resources at the disposal of the corporate élite hugely outweigh the voluntary effort of citizen-activists trying to put the opposite case. It’s as if a public meeting to make an important decision were attended by two or three people who are allowed to shout at the top of their voices, while the rest are forced to communicate in a barely audible whisper. Democracy it ain’t!
Carefully-crafted sound bites from the powerful are a poor substitute for the rough-and-tumble of real democratic dispute. The expensive techniques of corporate PR are now exercised at the cost of other people’s right to free speech – the democratic dice are loaded. Little wonder that many are becoming cynical and apathetic, sinking into a tranquilized silence. Why bother voting? Why bother speaking up? Why bother having an interest in anything but private pleasures and worries? And it’s not just ordinary folks. Contemporary theorists of democracy are preoccupied with what has gone wrong, and how to set it right. From Robert Dahl to Norberto Bobbio, 4 they feel the democratic promise can only be revived when the public are encouraged to form and act on their own opinions – not just to parrot the company line.
A democracy where the public conversation is managed – and often silenced – by PR professionals and their ilk must be resisted. Even in unlikely places like the Alberta oil patch, it is possible to outsmart them as they trip over their own arrogance. Perhaps corporations should be expelled from the political process entirely and restricted to the narrower, business aims for which they were originally incorporated. But, however it is done, it has to be done. Included in the rich legacy left us by the cultural critic Raymond Williams are these words: ‘[We] must get rid of the idea that communication is the business of a minority talking to, instructing, leading on the majority... the false ideology of people who are interested in communications only as a way of controlling people, or of making money out of them.’
1 John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine 1995.
2 Nancy Snow, Propaganda Inc, Seven Stories Press, New York, 1998.
3 Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, University of Illinois Press, 1997.
4 Stephen Coleman, Stilled Tongues, Porcupine Press, London, 1997.