Getting Environmentalists on Side
Increasingly business people are seeing the advantages of working out deals with environmental groups. James Harris, a vice president of Hill and Knowlton and also a member of the Sierra Club’s national Public Affairs Advisory Committee puts it this way:
For the environmental groups, working with corporations offers a ready source of funds and a chance to influence their behaviour. For corporations, environmental groups offer the opportunity to obtain positive publicity and gain access to group members, who tend to be better educated and more affluent than the general public. They also provide credibility, which can be particularly valuable...In political coalitions, environmental groups can provide substantial clout, with their large memberships and lobbying expertise.
Bruce Harrison, in his book Going Green: How to Communicate your Company’s Environmental Commitment, advises companies that “choosing green partners at the community level is without doubt the best strategy to improve your standing.”
Such relationships certainly pay off for industry. McDonalds greened its image after forming a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund. The Audubon Society approved of Mobil drilling for oil under an Audubon bird sanctuary, their representative explaining: “Conservationists have just got to learn to work with industry.”
One way for corporations to show they care about the environment, even if they don’t care enough to make major changes to their business practices, is to donate money to an environmental group or to sponsor an environmental project. Companies which fund cash-starved environmental groups believe “the imprimatur of activists will go a long way in improving their reputation among environmentally aware consumers.” However they do not necessarily support the aims of the groups they fund.
Companies which have sponsored US groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation have also been sponsoring several anti-environmental groups. RTZ a mining multinational that operates polluting mines in third world countries donates money to the National Trust, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and the Council for Environmental Conservation (the Environmental Council). Shell, which manufactured the pesticide Aldrin that is now banned in the US, was subject to an international boycott when it planned to dump the Brent Spar oil drilling platform into the sea, and which has operated controversial oil operations in Nigeria, gives about £200,000 to environmental organisations each year.
Many environmental groups accept the money because they believe that it will help pay for membership drives and campaign activities. However, such arrangements also enable corporations to get valuable information about environmental groups and how they work and think; information that will help them oppose the goals of the environmental groups.
Such donations can also have the additional benefit of coopting and corrupting environmentalists. Public relations practitioners have observed that environmental groups are “favoring cooperation rather than confrontation” more and more. O’Dwyer’s PR Service Report explains how wealthy companies can coopt environmental groups with donations and job offers. Corporations can win approval from environmental organisations, or at the very least a blind eye, through donations to these organisations.
Consultancies and perks for individual environmentalists also work wonders for getting a favourable hearing. For example, in 1993 Public Relations Journal reported how Ciba-Geigy had arranged for a tour of Europe for US environmentalists, academics, journalists and others to study European industrial waste management programmes. Environmentalists were recruited from the 10 largest environmental groups in the US as well as state and grassroots groups. The stated aim of the study tour was to bring together the various stakeholders, provide them with up-to-date information and encourage a dialogue between them and Ciba Geigy. “To avoid the perception that the tour was biased in any way” Ciba arranged for the tour to be funded by non industry sources as well as itself and for others to be involved in the organising and planning of the tour. For Ciba Geigy the tour successfully improved relations with the environmentalists and others.
In Sydney Australia, a besieged water and sewerage authority with a reputation for secrecy and deception, attempted to improve its image through funding environmentalists to review its operations and plans. The funds were sufficient to employ a number of people, full time, and it even paid these groups to prepare a formal application for the funds. Four groups were funded, Friends of the Earth, the National Parks Association, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, and the Total Environment Centre.
The groups involved were assured that they were free to say whatever they wanted in their reports and that they would have free access to Water Board documents. In October 1994, the groups under the umbrella name of The Sydney Water Project published a series of leaflets for comment by the public. These leaflets had a striking resemblance to Water Board fact sheets (produced in earlier years) in tone and style, albeit on recycled paper. They were bland and criticisms of the Board were weak and tentative.
One employee of Hill and Knowlton gives advice to corporations: “Help them raise money... Offer to sit on their board of directors”. He also suggests hiring staff from environmental groups who are available “at very reasonable rates”. Top environmentalists may be more expensive. When Burson-Marsteller hired the former chairman of Friends of the Earth in the UK, Des Wilson (pictured), as director of public affairs and crisis management he was “reckoned to be one of the highest paid people in PR”.
In 2002 Burson-Marsteller subsequently hired Lord Melchett, the former head of Greenpeace UK, as a consultant on an undisclosed annual retainer. "Lord Melchett, whose grandfather helped to found ICI, joins at Burson-Marsteller Richard Aylard, a former head of the Soil Association, and Gavin Grant, a former head of communications for the Body Shop."
PR consultant Philip Lesly argues that activists are people who are “disappointed with their small roles [in society]; so they have the time, the inclination and the opportunity to attack the structure”. He suggests that the best way to deal with such people is to give them a role:
If a group has legitimate arguments and shows it has a sound approach, enlist its leaders. Often they will make great contributions as employees. They might be retained as consultants. Or they may become active in a new working group you set up jointly.
Stauber and Rampton point out that hiring activists is a “crude but effective way to derail potentially meddlesome activists”. There are numerous examples of activists who now work for the industries they once opposed. For example, Paul Gilding, formerly executive director of Greenpeace International, does consultancy work for big business and bodies such as the Queensland Timber Board.
Another tactic is called ‘cross-pollination’ whereby PR firms manage to get strategic alliances going between different clients who might otherwise be opposed to each other. This can be done by donating public relations work to charities in order to be able to pressure those charities into supporting other clients later on.
An example is where a PR firm, Porter/Novelli, which represented a number of produce growers and pesticide manufacturers, was able to call in favours from the American Cancer Society, to which it had provided free services for decades (presumably to enhance its own reputation). When a documentary claiming that pesticides caused cancer in children was about to be screened, the PR firm managed to get the Cancer Society to issue a memo criticising the documentary, which was then used by the pesticide industry to lobby against the broadcast of the documentary.
Porter/Novelli seems to have made an art form of this sort of cross pollination. Many of its early clients were government departments but this soon made Porter/Novelli attractive to corporate clients who wanted to lobby those government departments. The firm soon had a long list of corporate clients as well as its government clients. “We began to see that there were synergies and opportunities to bring these two together” says Novelli. For example its previous PR work for a government department puts Porter/Novelli in a good position to represent the interests of a corporate client to that same government department.
Porter/Novelli also specialises in providing “pro bono work for health-related charities whose endorsements can help its corporate clients.” Its brochure reads:
One of our specialties is aligning our clients with diet, health, and consumer groups to create dynamic partnerships for public education, cause-related marketing...and corporate-image enhancement.
Another example of cross pollination is the way Hill and Knowlton set up a coalition of environmental groups to publicise the dangers of unprotected sun exposure resulting from ozone layer depletion. Unbeknownst to at least some of the environmentalists, this was funded by one of Hill and Knowlton’s clients, which produced sun screen lotion.
In some cases cross-pollination happens through membership of boards. For example Frank Boren, a board member of ARCO Petroleum served as president of the Nature Conservancy. He argued that such cooperation was advantageous for industry: “One good thing about that is that while we’re working with them, they don’t have time to sue us.”