Techniques for dealing with environmental activists and the media depend on knowing who they are and how they operate. Several public relations firms specialise in supplying this sort of information. For example the firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin (MBD) maintains extensive files on organisations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth which detail their strategies, methods and priorities. This information is used to assist their corporate clients, who are almost all members of the Fortune 100, to resolve “public policy conflicts between corporations and activist groups.” Activist groups are characterised as radical, realistic or idealistic and assessments made of their potential impact, anticipated initiatives, relations with other groups and potential for industry relationships. Profiles of key staff are included.
Services MBD provide to clients include reviewing lists of those registered to attend a company’s annual meeting so as to anticipate possible disruptions; analysing the public record of a leading activist to anticipate style and content of the campaign they will conduct against the client; and proposing environmentalists who would be suitable candidates for corporate Boards of Directors and advisory boards.
This sort of information is sometimes gathered through misrepresentation by staff who pose as journalists or friends of friends. Journalist John Dillon has documented two cases where Burson-Marsteller employees have disguised themselves, one as working for a consumer council and the other as an employee of a television programme, in order to get information for a client.
Another firm National Grassroots and Communications, under the guise of executers of an old lady’s estate wanting to find a suitable organisation to donate money to, have obtained the financial records of an activist group, and then used those records to oppose that group.
PR Watch alleges that MBD has spied on and undermined consumer activists and family dairy farmers opposing Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone (BGH) on behalf of clients Monsanto and Philip Morris/Kraft/General Foods. Kaufman Public Relations also resorted to spy tactics when it was hired by the National Dairy Board to promote BGH. It put together a team that recruited local residents to attend a New York city activist conference posing as housewives. Their brief was to:
attend the event, monitor developments, ask questions, and provide other support as appropriate. Each attendee must be able to articulate the basic [pro-BGH] arguments on the issue and cite one or more substantive reasons for supporting the Dairy Board’s position.
Kaufman PR was in fact caught out after a Freedom of Information inquiry and the National Dairy Board had to sever its contract with them following the bad publicity.
Another organisation which gathers ‘intelligence’ on activists is the Foundation for Public Affairs, which is funded by hundreds of corporations such as Dow Chemical, Exxon, Philip Morris, Mobil and Shell Oil. This foundation monitors over 75 activist publications and compiles information on over 1,300 groups and organisations. It publishes a directory of 250 major US public interest groups, Public Interest Profiles, which includes funding sources, methods of operation, budgets and boards of directors.
Public relations firms also collect information about journalists. One boasts:
Let us be your eyes and ears when the environmental media convene...Gather vital information on key journalists... Who’s the boss?... Age and Tenure...How do you break the ice? ... Not only will you find news on journalists, we’ll tell you what they want from you and what strategies you can employ with them to generate more positive stories and better manage negative situations.
Another, TJFR Publishing, has biographical data on about 6000 journalists which enables it to offer useful information to clients when they are approached by a journalist. It can provide background information on the journalist and advise them on strategies to use with that journalist to ensure a positive story or at least to minimise negative reporting.
PR firms also employ devices such as experiments involving reporters to see how they think. One journalist, Vicky Hutchings, wrote about her experience in a strange meeting with assorted other people invited by a public relations consultant representing a multinational oil company. During this meeting they took part in various brainstorming and word association exercises for which Hutchings got paid $50.
Another journalist outlined in Environment Writer the way DuPont’s PR people invited journalists to take part in an exercise during which they were asked to develop storylines based on various sentences such as “DuPont makes very wonderful chemicals, and no one needs to worry.” The journalists were watched by hidden DuPont researchers and paid $250 for their participation.
Polling is an important public relations tool for researching public opinion. It is a way of finding out who is opposed to a company and who are potential allies. It is also a way of testing what will work in a public relations campaign. Questions are given such as “if you knew such and such, how would you feel about X company?” with follow up questions, depending on their answers. In this way they can work out what are the right triggers to get people on side. Alternatively they can test public opinion before a trial or some event and get it postponed, for example, if they find that they are unlikely to win over a jury in the prevailing social climate.
A Hill & Knowlton subsidiary, Group Attitudes Corporation, conducts opinion research surveys for its clients but also uses researchers who “infiltrate a community and live there undercover for a week or so” so that they can “identify leaders, assess the scope of a particular problem and find out who is creating the problem. Where a client is trying to site an unwanted facility, such researchers can work out what compromises the community is willing to make before any formal community consultation begins.