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by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
The public relations industry was American-made, but now blankets the globe. This was brought home to us during a speaking tour arranged by Australian Bob Burton for our book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You. Bob is sort of the Aussie version of PR Watch--an investigative writer and activist who reveals the lies, damn lies and deceptions behind the news down under. We asked him to reveal to our readers how Australian PR firms use the same tricks, tactics and personages developed here to spin issues there.
Global PR firms like Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and others get rich serving the propaganda needs of the few hundred giant industrial combines that dominate most economic activity on planet earth. Global companies may spar with one another over market share, but they unite to attack their common enemies, including scientists who warn of the biosphere's inability to handle industrial pollutants that are destroying earth's ozone layer and climate.
In order to appear "green" and "socially responsible," today's PR-savvy 21st-century capitalists often lay low themselves while funding PR fronts to fight for business's "right" to pollute the planet. PR Watch has pioneered exposing such front groups and the powerful new tactic of "corporate grassroots organizing" that uses millions of dollars, slick consultants, direct marketing and captive employees to build a powerful army of support for the corporate political agenda. That's how the insurance, drug and health care industries sunk health care reform, "kicking butt" on the popular top priority of a new President.
Now the PR war over the Kyoto Treaty seems to be, in Yogi Berra's words, "deja vu all over again." Expect the professional environmentalists, the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund types, to fill your mailbox with fundraising appeals to lobby the Senate to ratify the climate treaty. But don't be fooled, because--like the Clinton health care plan--the Kyoto Treaty is a flawed vehicle. Even in the unlikely chance that it is ratified by the Senate, it will be too little to have any meaningful effect on the problem at hand.
Meanwhile Clinton and Gore can have it both ways, sitting on the treaty for years and then blaming its demise on a weak environmental movement and apathetic public. Industry is protected, and yet Al Gore's green credentials survive to the next election. Politicians can do what their corporate donors want and stay on the campaign-funding gravy train, while blaming environmentalists for not whipping up enough public support to pass planetary protections.
The Washington-based green lobby is a pathetically weak and ineffectual bunch. It is adept at milking hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from concerned citizens, foundations and, increasingly, businesses.But its political clout is a joke in Washington, primarily evidenced in its ability to finagle brunch invitations to the vice-presidential mansion. It is unaccountable to the millions of Americans whom it badgers for contributions, but who exercise no decision-making power and are in no way empowered locally by the over-paid elitists running groups like NRDC, EDF, NWF, WWF or, pick your favorite green initials.
The sad truth is that three decades after the first Earth Day, the powerful "astroturf grassroots" campaigns of the climate polluting industries can out-muscle, out-organize and defeat the environmental movement. The only bright spots in environmental organizing have been the scores of citizen-based do-it-yourself groups that have arisen to fight waste incinerators, sludge dumpers, hog factories, clear-cutting, mining and other visible corporate assaults on local communities. These groups could use some of the millions squandered by the national greenies in DC, but are cut out of the funding and have to fight their local battles with nickels and dimes.
Fundamental changes to protect the Earth and its people will come only from new national and international citizen movements that are, for the first time, rooted firmly at the grassroots. Until then expect more of the Washington wiggle: "You greenwash my back, I'll greenwash yours."