Shame on Richard Edelman

Edelman logoOn November 22, Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman, "the leading independent global PR firm," posted a blog criticizing Wendell Potter for his tell-all book, Deadly Spin, about deceptive corporate public relations techniques that are hurting this country so badly and costing Americans their health, and in some cases even their lives.

Edelman portrayed his firm as being on the side of truth. He took exception to Potter's portrayal of big PR firms as engaging in public deception.

I was completely amazed at Edelman's characterization of his firm as ethical, and his castigation of Wendell Potter. Perhaps Mr. Edelman is unaware of his own firm's appalling history, or perhaps he's just choosing to ignore it.

In 2006, a federal court in Washington, D.C. found the American tobacco companies guilty of wreaking 50 years of fraud and selling a defective and addictive product to the American public. The industry was ably assisted in perpetrating this fraud through an endless string of sophisticated, well-funded PR stunts like the ones Potter describes in his book, and more. Mr. Edelman's firm was utterly complicit in many of these deceptive activities.

Edelman's Firm Has Blood on its Hands

Edelman played a huge part in helping the tobacco industry sow doubt and confusion about the health hazards of tobacco smoke, and stave off legislation to rein in Big Tobacco's hazardous corporate behaviors. What's more, Edelman engaged in these activities long after the U.S. Surgeon General decisively declared tobacco smoke a health hazard in 1964, issued a report on nicotine addiction that compared it to heroin and cocaine addiction, and even after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed secondhand smoke as a Group A Human Carcinogen in 1993, the same rating it assigns to asbestos, radon gas and vinyl chloride. All this information from expert and official goverment sources did not stop Edelman from helping the tobacco industry keep pushing its deadly products on the American public.

Tobacco Industry Documents Don't Lie

Here are just a few of Edelman's damaging PR exploits on behalf of the tobacco industry over the decades:

* 1977 - Edelman authored an aggressive proposal to help R.J. Reynolds undermine and even reverse the existing common knowledge about the health hazards of cigarette smoking.

* 1978 - Edelman assisted the transnational tobacco companies in a global effort to improve the social acceptability of smoking and "to slow, to stop, to reverse the growing belief that smoking is harmful to the nonsmoker," to reinforce a positive image of smoking, and to "counter negative adversaries." Edelman urged the company to "break out of the tried and true principles of Public Relations - 101 and massage some truly creative ideas."

* 1978 - To counteract U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano's efforts to educate people about the health hazards of secondhand smoke (also known as environmental tobacco smoke, or ETS), Edelman suggested tobacco companies focus on the "annoyance" and "irritation" people feel towards ETS, to avoid discussion of the health hazards. Edelman urged R.J. Reynolds to "stay away from the primary health issue" in its communications and instead "create a debate," so the company could get 50 percent of newspaper space and television news airtime for the pro-tobacco side. Edelman urged RJR to cultivate an image of smokers as chic, elegant, stylish and "intellectually responsible," to help reverse the decline in social acceptability of smoking.

* 1982 - Edelman prepared a proposal for the global tobacco companies' Project Mayfly, an ambitious international PR plot to "influence, modify or change public opinion to the industry, smokers and smoking, to create a more favourable climate [for smoking and the industry], however directly or indirectly." Project Mayfly's objective included promoting the social benefits of smoking, "protecting smokers and their behavior," and "discrediting the antis" (public health advocates)."

* 1983 - Edelman managed the day-to-day operations of the U.K. Tobacco Alliance, an organization that the U.K. tobacco industry patterned after the American tobacco companies' Tobacco Action Network (TAN) -- a little-known network of the people who worked for the industry and its allied businesses. The industry pressed these allies into service to create the appearance of massive, grassroots protest against public health policies designed to reduce smoking. Edelman also produced materials to help the Tobacco Alliance minimize the seriousness tobacco's health threat.

* 1987 - Edelman produced a brochure titled "Smoking at Work," that discouraged employers from eliminating smoking in workplaces. The brochure stated there was "no scientific consensus" that secondhand smoke hurts nonsmokers' health, and warned that secondhand smoke "may be presented" as a health hazard "by anti-smoking activists whose motives are questionable." It said that ''ETS is rarely the cause of discomfort." Edelman quoted the tobacco industry front group, ACVA (Air Conditioning and Ventilation Atlantic), on the subject. The brochure encouraged employers to make expensive changes in their buildings' ventilation systems instead of eliminating smoking from workplaces.

* 1987 - Edelman created another pamphlet for the tobacco industry called "Should the No-Smoking Sign Stay On Forever?" that advocated preserving smoking on commercial airline flights.

* 1991 - Edelman organized and promoted media tours for Philip Morris' front group, Healthy Buildings International, a purportedly independent, third-party construction and environmental safety business that worked to take the public's focus off of the health hazards of secondhand smoke by convincing people to believe the central problem was inadequate building ventilation systems.

* 1994 - Edelman proposed disseminating favorable "advertorials," -- paid for by third parties to mask their origins -- to help fight a proposed smoking ordinance in Chicago. Edelman also proposed conducting three "studies" -- the results of which would be pre-determined -- to "demonstrate that many establishments would be seriously impacted/forced to close in the face of an all-out ban on smoking," that "Chicago bookings for meetings/conventions would decline in the face of an all out ban on smoking," and to "demonstrate" that a smoking ban would hurt tourism to the city.

* 1995 - Edelman conducted "push polls" to fight workplace smoking bans in American cities. Edelman designed surveys with leading questions like "If the City of Chicago had banned smoking in all public places when you were choosing a site for your meeting, would you have considered holding the event in a city other than Chicago?"

(The notion that smoking bans hurt business has since been thoroughly discredited by objective studies that measure sales tax income before and after smoking restrictions are enacted. Smoking restrictions have actually been found to either have no effect, or in many cases to help business, since more people can patronize businesses that are smoke-free.)

* 1995 - Edelman recommended Philip Morris build alliances with the tourism and hospitality industries, and develop a "coveted award" that could be given to representatives of these industries to generate positive media coverage and goodwill for PM at a time when people were battling to eliminate secondhand smoke in public venues like restaurants, bars and hotels.

* 1995 - Edelman helped Philip Morris fight smoking bans using the company's Accommodation Program, which was designed to help preserve smoking in restaurants and stave off the passage of public smoking ordinances. Edelman's media plan for Chicago stated, "Past news coverage has focused primarily on health issues with little balance in stories, so there is little information in reporters' files to counter faulty government studies by EPA and OSHA" about the health hazards of secondhand smoke.

* 1996 - Edelman helped Philip Morris get "positive media coverage" for its Marlboro and Virginia Slims brands using music promotions.

* Edelman helped British American Tobacco promote cigarettes using car racing.

* Edelman helped Philip Morris promote the Marlboro Adventure Team in the 1990s.

...And this list is just a fraction of the information that's now public about Edelman and the tobacco industry. Anyone with an Internet connection can go to the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and search on terms like "Edelman" and "confidential" or "Edelman" and "ETS" and pull up hundreds of documents detailing the company's exploits on behalf of tobacco companies.

Edelman Had to Know it Was Helping Kill People

BPlogoEdelman spent decades helping the tobacco industry keep its deadly product in the social mainstream, even though the company was aware that cigarette smoke has been declared hazardous to human health by both the U.S. Surgeon General and the United Kingdom's Royal College of Physicians. In so doing, Edelman helped advance a global pandemic of nicotine addiction, tobacco-related disease and death.

Richard Edelman should be ashamed of what his company has done over the decades to harm humanity. Edelman joins other damaging PR firms, like APCO Worldwide, Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton and Fleishman-Hillard in the U.K.-- all so hungry for corporate money that they have thrown all human compassion aside to help pave the way for the tobacco industry to kill tens of millions of people worldwide, and keep doing it with abandon today.

Edelman should be completely ashamed of himself, too, for his criticism of Wendell Potter, a PR insider who has finally gotten the guts to speak out about what is so wrong with corporate America's twisted and misanthropic misuse of the field of public relations.


As someone who has been studying this industry for the last five years, I can add that this is rather typical. This industry is full of preeners like Edelman, people who think PR is some kind of higher calling. This is a thin skinned lot (and hence the attack on Wendell Potter) that cannot stand any kind of criticism and is obsessed with giving internal industry awards for all these "campaigns." Thanks for calling Edelman out, though its too bad it wont get broader public exposure.

As a PR person myself, I have read Wendell Potter's book and found a grim familiarity with some of the ethical decisions he wrestled with. There is no question that PR can and has been used to defend tobacco, fossil fuel polluters, health insurance companies, big banks, and other corporate criminals. The PRSA and the PR industry itself needs to step up and improve its ethical standards if it is going to retain any credibility with the public at large.

Of course, I'm sure a couple of the "commandments" of the PR industry are "NEVER admit wrongdoing" and "FIGHT BACK whether you're right or wrong". Only The Rich/Big Corporations can afford good PR and enough good lawyers.

Wendell Potter's book "Deadly Spin" clearly spells out the unethical efforts of a few to convince the many that healthcare reform was evil and the status quo was better. Mr. Potter provides the transparency that only an insider can provide: those who benefit from the status quo financed and directed an elaborate PR campaign to purposely disguise the truth and rob the majority of Americans of their future health and economic well-being. The truth is painful, but it does empower us, the public, and our legislative leaders to act on knowledge, not fear, in the future.

Anne, please know that Edelman divested an operation in Canada and resigned all tobacco business in 2000, and subsequently instituted a policy prohibiting work for tobacco companies or tobacco products in any capacity across the firm. When our Malaysia office started to conduct a corporate social responsibility project in Malaysia for a tobacco company in 2003, it was stopped immediately and the small project fee was donated to charity. In addition, we actively support smoking cessation efforts as well as provide $2000 to any staff member who decides to quit smoking. In 2007 Edelman received the CEO Cancer Gold Standard accreditation from the CEO Roundtable on Cancer which is awarded after a company meets or exceeds rigorous standards to improve the health of employees. Derek Creevey, Chief Administrative Officer, Edelman

These are all very positive moves by your company, Mr. Creevey. I am genuinely glad to hear about them, and relieved these changes have been made in your policies. Can you please send me a copy of your company policy regarding your prohibition on working for tobacco companies? And would Edelman consider publicly renouncing its past work on behalf of the tobacco industry and issuing an apology to the public for the harm your company has caused through the decades it spent working on behalf of the tobacco industry? We would be glad to help out by cross-posting it on our site. Anne Landman