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Lies, Damn Lies and the PR Industry

by Nicholas Wilson

About 40 percent of all "news" flows virtually unedited from the public relations offices
"The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

--Alex Carey, quoted in "The Public Relations Industry's Secret War on Activists"

Virtually every large corporation contracts with a public relations firm to help it control not only how it is perceived by the public, but to manipulate public opinion to serve the corporation's goals. "Perception management" is the chilling, but accurate, term preferred by Burson Marstellar, the world's largest corporate PR firm. This was the company that Exxon hired to deal with the public relations crisis caused by the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster. The slogan on the BM web page is " Burson Marstellar - Managing perceptions that drive performance." Here's a bit of copy from an animated graphic on the BM website: "Perceptions are real. They color what we see ... what we believe ... how we behave. They can be managed ... to motivate behavior ... for positive business results."

Public relations is a sneaky business, which often does its work through manipulated news stories. "The best PR is never noticed," says the proud unwritten slogan of the trade. Media experts estimate that about 40 percent of all "news" flows virtually unedited from the public relations offices. The PR company may not write the story, but quietly manages the events that result in the story.

A few months after the Bari bombing, Hill & Knowlton was hired by the Kuwaiti government to generate support for U.S. entry into the Gulf War against Iraq. One of their most successful deceptions was the incubator story. "I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators ... and left the children to die on the cold floor." This was the story told by "Nayirah, " a 15-year old Kuwaiti girl who shocked a public hearing of Congress' Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. It was widely reported in the media, and helped demonize Iraqis in American public opinion. The young woman was later unmasked as the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and Kuwaiti hospital officials interviewed after the Gulf War had ended said no infants had been dumped from incubators, but only a small fraction of those who were exposed to the original propaganda ever learned that.

Hill & Knowlton had helped "Nayirah" prepare her written testimony to Congress which mentioned 15 babies being dumped. H&K had sent its own film crew to the hearing, then sent the tearful testimony on video to a service that provided it to 700 TV stations nationwide. Portions were used on NBC Nightly News. The fraudulent story reached an estimated 35 million people.

By a January 8, 1991, House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on these and other phony atrocity stories engineered by H&K the story had mushroomed to 312 alleged incubator murders, a figure vouched for by Amnesty International. Four days after that hearing, Congress approved military action, and the bombing began.

Many large advertising agencies also have a PR branch, because the two fields have much in common, particularly their goal of persuasion. The main difference is that while advertising may use hidden persuaders, at least the viewer is aware he or she is looking at propaganda and knows whose propaganda it is. On the other hand PR is covert, and the viewer is not usually aware that propaganda is being delivered, usually as straight news, nor on whose behalf.

PR Watch is the quarterly newsletter of the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit organization founded by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. In the following passage they discuss the relationship between journalism and PR:

There is a precise and predictable inverse relationship between the work of journalists and the work of the public relations industry. Good investigative journalists work to inform the public about the activities of the rich and powerful. They uncover secrets known only to a few, and share those secrets with the rest of us. Public relations, on the other hand, works to control and limit the public’s access to information about the rich and powerful. PR has its own techniques of investigation – techniques which range from opinion polling to covert surveillance of citizen activists. Rather than studying the few for the benefit of the many, these techniques study the many for the benefit of the few. ... PR Watch editors have recently been honored by Project Censored, a university-based organization which each year selects what it considers the most under-reported stories in the United States. (From PRWatch, 1st quarter 1997)

Public relations is big business, approximately $10 billion per year in 1995 according to Stauber and Rampton. Hill & Knowlton collected 1997 fees of $189 million, and Burson Marstellar's were $265.5 million, according to Inside PR (3/2/98). The H&K website says the company has 57 offices in 32 countries as well as "an extensive associates network." PR companies' clients include not only corporations but governments, such as H&K working on behalf of Kuwait.

Public Relationships: Hill & Knowlton, Robert Gray by Johan Carlisle from the Spring 1993 issue of Covert Action Quarterly

Center for Media & Democracy, a nonprofit, public interest organization dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry; publishes the quarterly newsletter PR Watch

Listen to an informative 20-minute radio interview with Center for Media & Democracy founder John Stauber on CounterSpin, the weekly program of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. (This requires the free RealAudio player)

Introduction by Mark Dowie to the book Toxic Sludge is Good for You -- Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

Engineering of Consent: Uncovering Corporate PR Strategies by Judith Richter, draws on her MA thesis on the history of corporate PR, a good introduction to methods and strategies used by PR companies

The Public Relations Industry's Secret War On Activists by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. Using spies, infiltrators, phony grassroots campaigns, smear techniques, and high-tech media assaults, the PR industry is targeting its biggest enemy: local activists. Covert Action Quarterly Winter, 1996

Hill & Knowlton Home Page

Burson Marstellar Home Page

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