In an article addressed to the chemical industry, James Lindheim, director of Public Affairs World-wide at Burson-Marsteller in London, described how various industries such as the oil industry and the forest industries had suffered major declines in public opinion and had successfully managed to remedy them through public relations. In the 1970s US environmentalists drew public attention to the clear-cut forests and the image of environmental degradation was a compelling one. In response the forest products industry launched a massive PR campaign ($7-10 million/year for five years) promoting the message that “We love the forest and protect it. When we cut trees, we plant them. We are not rapers of the hillside, we are farmers of trees; we grow them and reap them and plant them.”
The forest products industry could have tried to explain clear-cutting for its economic efficiency, and pointed out that the prices of paper and houses would go up if they were not allowed to continue to cut ugly swatches out of the forest. But they didn’t try to explain what they were doing in their own terms. They explained it in the public’s terms, and connected themselves to powerful positive images in the public’s mind: protection of the forests and farming.
Lindheim explained the rationale behind this sort of strategy in terms of a psychiatrist’s relationship with an irrational patient:
There is, for instance, a very interesting technique that psychiatrists use to deal with irrational and distressed patients. They call it the therapeutic alliance. When an anxious patient first arrives, the psychiatrist will be a very sympathetic listener. The whole time that his mind is telling him that he has a raving lunatic on his hands, his mouth will be telling the patient that his problems are indeed quite impressive, and that he the psychiatrist is amazed at how well the patient is coping, given the enormity of the situation....
Once that bond of trust is established, true therapy can begin and factual information can be transmitted.
Lindheim advises the chemical industry to do the same; to build a therapeutic alliance with the public, which has an irrational and emotion-based reaction to chemical risks. He says that scientists and engineers should avoid the temptation to try to explain to the public how safe pesticides and plastics and food additives are. “Obviously, people don’t understand. If they did, they wouldn’t worry and they certainly wouldn’t be hostile.” Since the public is so concerned with protecting the environment the chemical industry “must use its communications resources to demonstrate its commitment to solving environmental problems, and making environmental improvements.”
The industry must convince people that it cares, not by giving them facts about the true risks and benefits of chemical products but by creating a therapeutic alliance. It must accept the legitimacy of their concern, although some may see these concerns as misguided and irrational... The industry must be like the psychiatrist: rationally figuring out how it can help the public put things in perspective...
What is essential for good public relations, according to Lindheim, is trust. But trust “is built on emotion, not on facts” so increasing public understanding will not be helpful.
Similarly, Bill Brody, professor of public relations at Memphis State University, argues that “people are likely to respond to ideas, objects, persons, and events as much by what they think and feel about them as by what they know about them.”