Spin Doctors, Beware the Net

Perhaps the most important "coping" book in 2001 will be the extraordinarily erudite and well-researched book, Trust Us, We're Experts, by investigative reporters Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.

"The American Petroleum Institute filed suit against the EPA [and] charged that the agency was suppressing a scientific study for fear it might be misinterpreted. . . . The suppressed study reveals that 80 percent of air pollution comes, not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees."

— Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, 1979

Perhaps the most important "coping" book in 2001 will be the extraordinarily erudite and well-researched book, Trust Us, Were Experts, by investigative reporters Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.

The authors names already strike fear in the hearts of the $10 billion per year public relations industry. Their quarterly publication, PR Watch, uncovers the real and phony citizens groups, the hired-gun corporate propagandists and an array of well-masked PR manipulations, along with their agendas: All those people in the television ads, worrying about new health-care proposals or insisting that as parents they should have a choice about the schools their children attend? Theyre actors, paid to look like married couples or concerned parents, about as genuine as Exxons commitment to the environment or R. J. Reynolds Tobaccos commitment to your good health.

When Truth Needs Spin

According to the mantra of the PR industry, all companies and industries, all politicians and everybody with special axes to grind need the spin meisters tools: paid experts, newsletters, advertisements, books, malleable scientists, magazine articles, op-ed columns and talk show guests.

Right now, Bridgestone/Firestone seems to be a good prospect for those top-notch PR firms — creative companies that could at least deflect the blame: poor workmanship, heat, Ford Motor or widespread driver error. Ford might well be looking for some good PR as well, since that company has already had to shell out millions of dollars in lawsuits over Firestone tires, settling 11 of the cases for a total of $11.5 million, and losing another at a cost of $25 million.

Microsoft, with its 500-plus in-house PR employees and flanked by a host of outside PR firms, parades Bill Gates around like a god, as if he had never appeared for a court deposition acting like a spoiled kid in a snit.

A Rose by Any Other Name

The Tobacco Institute Research Committee — which later became the Council for Tobacco Research — was designed by the Hill & Knowlton PR firm in the 1950s. For almost four decades, it generated information and research to cast doubt on claims that smoking cigarettes was harmful.

Pick a controversial topic — from asbestos to PCBs, from lead in gasoline to nuclear energy, from universal health care to school choice. The common thread is the public relations industrys ability to fill the substance void with quasi-scientists, alleged experts, slick charts, video news releases, op-ed columns, books and magazine articles, stump speeches and voice coaching.

As Rampton and Staubers research shows, theres always some new group springing up, like The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which asserted that research showing smoking directly caused illness and death was "junk science." The firm that created and financially supported TASSC was none other than Philip Morris, the same tobacco company thats producing all those advertisements today touting how it supports the ballet or visual arts, and feeds the hungry.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

Thankfully, there is a serious challenge to the PR industry looming on the near horizon. And — as you might expect from a column in Interactive Week — its the Internet, stupid. Each year, more and more of the "prime market" will get its information and ideas from the Internet.

Information moves far faster than lumbering dinosaurs like the old PR models can respond. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of whistle-blowers pouring out files and memos and secrets all over the Net. All that PR people representing companies with something to hide can do is stick their fingers in the dikes and expect to drown in the coming flood.

Will the PR industry go the way of the dodo? No. But its practitioners are going to have to get slicker by half to cut it — or spin it — in the world of the Internet. Will there be Net-savvy people to help them get there? Of course. A $10 billion industry devoted to smoke and mirrors wont just fade away, which is why Stauber and Ramptons Trust Us, Were Experts should be in every library, close at hand.

Just remember some of the wisdom well-paid experts have taught us:

• We need an obscenely expensive Star Wars missile defense system, even though knowledgeable scientists are all but unanimous in their opposition.

• There is no global warming or ozone depletion.

• And, as the title of another fine book by Stauber and Rampton informs us, "Toxic sludge is good for you."

Lewis Z. Koch has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. Currently, he is a special correspondent at CyberWire Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]