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Radiation Therapy: Cynical Wisdom from APCO & Associates
by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
State Affairs Company isn't the only powerful DC PR/lobby outfit behind the Contributions Watch deception. So is APCO & Associates, a part of the Grey Advertising empire. APCO specializes in setting up front groups and coalitions for the tobacco and insurance industries.
APCO's vice presidents, Neal Cohen and B. Jay Cooper, work with Contributions Watch on behalf of Philip Morris. Cohen and Cooper are the PR wizards behind the so-called "tort reform movement" and groups such as the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA). Their goal is to make trial attorneys engaged in consumer lawsuits "radioactive" in the mind of the public by painting them as greedy ambulance-chasers.
In March, Public Citizen's Congress Watch, a legitimate public interest group founded by Ralph Nader, released a report titled "Smoke and Mirrors: The Tobacco Industry's Influence on the Phony 'Grassroots' Campaign for Liability Limits." The report exposes as a "sham" the tort reform movement.
"[A] nationwide movement has emerged in favor of revamping tort law--the laws which compensate people who are wrongfully injured and punish those who cause injuries," states the Nader report. " 'Reformers' ... claim to speak for the average American. ... But lurking behind the scene at American Tort Reform Association, and through the nationwide movement, are big business groups ... insurance companies, auto manufacturers, oil and chemical companies, and pharmaceutical firms. Another powerful actor ... is the tobacco industry."
The tobacco industry, held in universally low esteem, hides behind groups such as Contributions Watch and the American Tort Reform Association, and it's the job of highly paid PR specialists like Neal Cohen to create front groups for tobacco's hidden political agenda.
PR firms love controlled publicity, the kind they create, package, and deliver on behalf of their clients, resulting in a carefully managed message to precisely affect policies and opinions among a recipient audience. They hate publicity of the kind that might reveal to the public how PR experts contrive to dupe them with concocted realities. Cohen in particular craves behind-the-scenes power and anonymity, typically refusing to even be photographed for puff pieces in PR trade journals.
Imagine, then, Cohen's anger when PR Watch obtained an insiders audio tape of a candid and highly revealing talk he gave to a group of Fortune 500 public affairs flacks at an expensive corporate gathering, in which he bragged of the clever hidden ways in which his company helps develop front groups for tobacco and other interests.
Cohen's remarks were part of the annual five-day Public Affairs Council National Grassroots Conference held each February. The event is open to PAC members and non-members alike, with non-members paying $1,000 to attend. Membership in PAC, the premier professional association of business PR lobbyists, costs from $1,000 to $12,000 a year depending on the wealth of the member firm.
Cohen was taped speaking at the February 1994 conference, which also featured the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed who was there to "share the secrets of his organization's highly successful grassroots operation" with corporate America. Cohen, Reed and others were taped openly by conference organizers, who sold the tapes as a $105 package titled "Fine Tuning for Grassroots Effectiveness 1994."
PR Watch obtained its copy of the audiotape by paying good money for it. Our copy made its way into the hands of New York Times political reporter Jane Fritsch, who used it as the basis for an article titled "Sometimes Lobbyists Strive to Keep Public in the Dark."
Fritsch reported that Cohen "regaled the group with tales of hapless reporters and public relations coups, but he underscored a serious theme: the importance of keeping the public in the dark about who the clients really are. Mr. Cohen is a specialist in 'grass-roots' lobbying, a Washington term for a technique often used to camouflage an unpopular or unsympathetic client. Typically the client, often a large business, hires a Washington firm to organize a coalition ... The coalition draws public sympathy for ... the original client, who recedes into the background."
Shortly thereafter, the Public Affairs Council stopped all further sales of the tape, and for good reason. Cohen's words provide a viewing window for citizens and journalists alike to catch a glimpse of the cold calculations and brilliant deceptions that allow industry to hide behind what appears to be a genuine grassroots movement, but is really bought, shaped and paid for by the biggest of business interests. Below are some edited excerpts:
Fine Tuning for Corporate Effectiveness
by Neal Cohen
Let me tell you about a problem that a client came to me with. It was December, 1992, and they said, "We want to pass a bill in Mississippi ... and we've got a problem: Our industry can't pass the bill. If the legislators know we're the only industry that wants this bill, it's an automatic killer. And just to make it a little more difficult, we've joined up with one other industry to fund this effort and they are worse than us. People dislike them more intensely and in fact they don't even have any facilities in the state of Mississippi, not to mention the product they manufacture." Then they said, "The session ends in March. O.K.? So you've only got 60 days or so to do this. ... The issue is tort reform."
Now, there's a couple problems with that issue. One is that its not a very sexy issue. All right? "Tort" to the average person is dessert, it isn't a legal principle. The second problem with tort reform is that ... the people who oppose tort reform in Mississippi are the largest political contributor, the trial lawyers.
I have a sort of a basic cynical view of politics which is that legislators only care about three things in life, and substance is not one of them. They care about money and where their money is going to come from to get reelected. They care about where their votes are going to come from. And they care about how the media perceives them. And as a "grassroots consultant," for any of you who work in companies, your thing is to manipulate those three things to your advantage. ...
We had to figure out two things. One, how do you frame the issue so that a broader group of people will get into the game, because we only could rely on those two industries for any help. ... Secondly, how do you deal with the money issue. OK? If you're a corporation and you can't compete with your opponents' contributions for any number of reasons, how do you deal with your opponents contributions. And in the case of the trial lawyers we had to figure out how to make their money radioactive, so their money would be a negative in the campaign.
First thing we did we took some surveys. ... We asked a question in a poll. And I encourage anyone who is thinking of doing a grassroots campaign trying to find messages, do some polling and some focus groups. It's a very good investment. ...
And what we asked was, "How concerned are you personally that you might be sued?" OK? Because That's what tort reform is all about--liability issues. ... What we were trying to do to build our coalition was tap some basic emotions that real people care about, and one basic emotion that real people care about is fear. And in this case people are afraid that they're going to be sued. When they watch all those television commercials of lawyers ... their real concern is that the system is going to be used against them.
And so when you're thinking about building a coalition, you've got to think about those basic emotions to drive them. ... Then we wanted to make sure though of that "radioactive" quality, and that politicians would understand it. ... And we asked the question, "Who would you be more likely to vote for, ... a candidate that received money, campaign contributions, from personal injury lawyers? And in every case ... it was almost 80% that they'd vote against it.
The reason why so many grassroots programs fail is that people talk about terms that only make sense in the boardrooms of corporations or in the trade associations. Use words that real people understand, and test the words. So we built a coalition around the concept of "lawsuit abuse," and we enlarged the scope of the conflict so that people understood how it would affect their pocket book, how it would address their fear, how it would deal with their anger at the legal profession. ...
And then we decided to use campaign tactics ... where we could use the advertisements, television, print, ... giving people an opportunity to pick up their phone and call an 800 number and get involved. ... Everything we did, we did it ... under the guidance of a lobbyist. And that's so important. If the lobbyists are not telling you who the targets are, it's going to fail. ... So it has to be a coordinated campaign.
If you've got a coalition, you'd better have a committed leader, a spokesperson, and you'd better train that spokesperson, and it should only be one person. ... And if you can, find somebody who has stature and is not perceived as somebody who is typical. Somebody who ... has the stature with the legislators ...
The other thing you have to have is some passion. ... You're asking people to take time out of their day to write a letter or pick up the phone, and if you don't believe in the issue you're fighting for, they are not going to believe in it either. That means everything you write to them, everything you say to them, has to be injected with words that make sense to people and show that this is something [that] ... is going to hurt them, or it's going to hurt the company, or its going to hurt the state. ... Jobs, and competitiveness and pocketbook issues, things like that.
You need to have credibility, and that means when you pick people to join your coalition make sure they are credible and if they are not, keep them away. In a tort reform battle, if State Farm is the leader of the coalition, you're not going to pass the bill, it's not credible. OK? Because it's so self-serving.
[Y]ou just had to sign your name on a form that said you're a member ... And we made sure that it was typical people mixed in with large employers and political contributors. ... The problem with broad-based membership is--don't confuse that with broad-based leadership. OK? If you join a coalition and you contribute significant money to a coalition, you'd better be at the table when the decisions are made and ... it ought to be a card table ...
Broad-based membership is "What does the public see?" "What do the legislators see?" Decision-making is, you need a core group, three or so people, who have similar interests and are going to get the job done and not veer off.
The people you want in your coalition is not just the guy at the corner grocery store, unless the guy at the corner grocery store happens to be also among [a politician's] inner circle, or is among the people that are good friends with the legislator ... Start with the friends, do an analysis, don't just say "we've got to get ten people to write a letter," make sure they are the right ten people ... "gatekeepers." ...
We used every tactic we could think of to get a message out there. ... We also used polls to get the media's attention ... We did a research study using a local professor, we spent $5,000 on a study ... it was to get the media's attention. ... We used television [ads] in part to get the media's attention. ... We also did billboards [with an 800 number] ... The media took our side, and [the trial lawyers'] money became radioactive.
[At this point, Cohen played for his audience a videotape of a local TV newscast from Jackson, MS, Channel 13, which perfectly regurgitates the message of his campaign, which the local TV newscasters say is to "to clean up the legal system." Cohen's audience hoots and howls with laughter as the newscasters plug the 800 number for Cohen's astroturf coalition: "If you want to learn more about that coalition, share your own views or make a contribution, you can call 1-800- ..." Cohen remarks to his appreciative audience of corporate PR experts, "That's the sort of thing you like to see. Who cares what came before that 800 number when he said it?"]
Rule number one for me is stay away from substance. Don't talk about the details of legislation ... Talk about ... a broader issue such as ... "lawsuit abuse," "trial lawyer greed," "increasing jobs." ... We only used the commercials as a recruitment device, and to attract the media to our side and to scare the opposition. ...
[The trial lawyers] didn't really know who was at the heart of everything, there were no reporting requirements, ... and the problem they faced was we had 1,500 Mississippians mixed in with who our clients were. ... If you look at the list, you'll see names of who some of those industries are ... but we had broadened the issue so it was identified ... with a much broader group, and it was focused in as a constituent grassroots issue.
Don't forget how important personalities are to politics. ... sometimes you get so wrapped up in issues that you forget that if you find the right spokesperson the issue will become less important, the spokesperson will become the identity for the whole thing.
[Finally, Cohen reiterated when and why to develop an astroturf coalition:]
One time to do it is when the people, the key industry or corporation that wants the bill cannot pass it on its own ... Another is when an issue has enough attractiveness to a broader mix that you are more powerful by bringing in other groups ... I guess to simplify, one is for cover, and one is for strength.