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Sometimes the Truth Leaks Out: Failed PR Stunts "Down Under"
by Bob Burton
As in the US, the Australian PR industry woos potential clients with promises of campaigns that can't fail. Rarely do they admit to plans that have gone wrong, let alone at the hands of small, low-budget community groups. But the industry's facade of omnipotence can be eroded with the assistance of a little understanding of the PR industry's tactics.
Understanding some basic elements of how industry plans and executes campaigns can assist community groups. As these examples illustrate, research into the background of a PR campaign can help bring information to light that may cause the campaign to unravel.
"People Get Killed Everywhere"
Former Greenpeace Canada activist Patrick Moore is now making a living for himself working as a consultant to industry. In 1991 Moore was appointed as a director of the British Columbia Forest Alliance.
According to O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, the Alliance is "a Burson-Marsteller created group, bankrolled by large timber companies," which "is waging a PR war with environmentalists upset with the logging of rainforests in western Canada." Moore's status as a former leader in Greenpeace made him an ideal candidate for the PR strategy of "cooptation."
Figures like Moore, of course, crop up in any movement--people who, for a variety of reasons, turn against their former colleagues in the cause. He now seems to believe that his attacks on Greenpeace and other environmental groups are necessary to save environmentalism from its own "extremism."
Moore's personal history sheds some light on the evolution of his thinking. Following his stint with Greenpeace, he became a fish farmer. In his new role as self-styled "upwardly mobile rural professional," he ran afoul of coastal homeowners who complained of odors and fouled beaches, as well as traditional fishermen who complained that fish farmers were poisoning the oceans with algicides and fouling the waters for wild salmon.
These experiences, combined with Moore's background--his family has been involved in forestry for three generations--contributed to an acrimonious separation from Greenpeace when Moore endorsed clearcutting and other logging practices that Greenpeace opposes.
One of Moore's frequent accusations against environmentalists is that they have become too "confrontational," whereas he now recognizes the importance of a "community-based, consensus approach" to dealing with environmental issues. But Moore's own attacks on his former colleagues reveal a pugnacious personality that seems to revel in confrontation and controversy.
Moore lost his cool, for example, when a Canadian journalist asked him about Burson-Marsteller's role in conducting a public relations campaign for Argentina when the Argentinian military's death squads were murdering thousands of citizens and political dissidents. Moore rose to the bait by responding that "people get killed everywhere."
In Australia, the National Association of Forest Industries and its front group, the Forest Protection Society, sponsored a tour by Moore, hoping again to play on his credentials as an ex-Greenpeace activist who endorsed logging practices and attacked activist groups as being extreme. What they didn't count on was that Moore's statements for industry in North America would be gathered as background information for activists and journalists.
Once a two-page summary of Moore's past statements was circulated to the media, his enthusiasm for debates evaporated. He withdrew from three debates, insisting that he would only participate in interviews that allowed him to appear separately from his critics.
Moore attempted to lambaste Australian environmentalists as being anti-science. In one interview he was told that the National Biodiversity Council, comprising leading Australian scientists, criticized logging practices for leading to local extinctions. To the stunned amazement of the interviewer, he attacked the scientists as "just a group of self-appointed green academics."
In Tasmania, Moore finally showed up for a radio debate. He demanded a retraction of the briefing materials that cited his defense of Burson-Marsteller in Argentina. His demand was refused, and instead his statement about Argentina ended up being broadcast to a statewide audience. At the end of the debate Moore stormed from the studio, leaving journalists bemused.
Trapped in Deception
In 1995 one of Australia's largest woodchipping companies, Boral Timber, distributed a memo purporting to be an authoritative summary of events at the 1995 "Wild Agendas" conference of Australia's Wilderness Society." The memo contained outlandish claims designed to discredit environmentalists and was distributed to politicians, police and media. For example, one suggestion made during the conference was that environmentalists should consider establishing a 1-800 phone support service for victims of harassment. The memo translated this as a plan to engage in harassment: "Home telephone numbers of politicians, senior police, local government leaders etc will be circulated so that direct complaints can be made at any time of day or night."
"Stealth" memos are written with an element of plausibility in the hope that they will be used unquestioningly by third parties such as journalists or politicians. However, one recipient of Boral's memo was appalled and provided a copy to The Wilderness Society. When challenged, the head of Boral sheepishly claimed that it done by an employee acting in a private capacity even though it was circulated on letterhead--a claim which few people took seriously either as an excuse or as an apology.
At the time, Boral was seeking to position itself as an environmentally responsible corporate citizen. Its defamatory memorandum demonstrated the opposite. Environmentalists circulated the Boral memo to media and activists around the country, along with a detailed, point-by-point critique of its distortions as an example of corporate PR trickery.
Opposing Mothers Opposing Pollution
Sometimes PR firms set up phony activist groups to create confusion as they attempt to attack real activists. Other times, the ploy is used simply to sell a client's product. Either way, the tactic cheapens and dilutes the message of real citizen-based activism, and should be vigorously challenged.
In late 1993, a group called Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP) burst onto the scene, calling itself "the largest women's environmental group in Australia with thousands of supporters across the country . . . The group comprises mainly mothers and other women concerned with the welfare and rights of Australian women."
MOP's cause? A campaign against plastic milk bottles, which centered on the issues of waste disposal, the carcinogenic risks of milk in contact with plastic, and reduction in the quality of milk as a result of exposure to light. "The message to the consumer is never buy milk in plastic containers," said spokesperson Alana Maloney. MOP also campaigned in New Zealand, where it issued a "world wide warning" about the cancer link to plastic milk bottles and urged consumers to stop "buying milk in plastic bottles because we believe there is a very real and deadly risk of innocent consumers contracting cancer."
At first, membership of MOP was free, which prompted questions about how the group could afford to carry out expensive publicity in support of its cause. And although MOP claimed branches across Australia, Alana Maloney seemed to be its only spokesperson. Searches of basic public records such as voting rolls could find no such person. MOP's letterhead listed three addresses, in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Each turned out to be a post office box.
In February 1995, MOP's luck ran out. Following persistent criticisms from environment groups, the Courier Mail, a newspaper in Queensland, discovered that "Mrs Alana Maloney" was in fact Janet Rundle, who heads a public relations company called J.R. and Associates. Rundle is also a co-director, along with Trevor Munnery, of a company called Vita Snax, and Munnery has his own PR firm called Unlimited Public Relations, which works for the Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC)--the makers of paper milk cartons.
Questioned by phone, Munnery denied any links with MOP or Alana Maloney, refused to talk about his links with Janet Rundle, and hung up on the reporter. Rundle claimed that she didn't know Mr Munnery.
ALC Executive Director Gerard van Rijswijk threatened to sue the Courier Mail for alleging a link between his organization and MOP. "We follow the group's activities, but know nothing about how it operates," Van Rijswijk claimed. He also denied any knowledge of links between UPR, Munnery and Maloney/Rundle. In the wake of these revelations, MOP sank from public view and has since disappeared.