Front Groups and Credibility
The use of front groups enable corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern. These front groups lobby governments to legislate in the corporate interest;to oppose environmental regulations and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability. Front groups also campaign to change public opinion so that the markets for corporate goods are not threatened and the efforts of environmental groups are defused. Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, advises companies:
Put your words in someone else’s mouth... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are. Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often, with the media.
The use of front groups to represent industry interests in the name of concerned citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously businesses lobbied governments directly and put out press releases in their own name or that of their trade associations. However the rise of citizen and public interest groups, including environmental groups, has been accompanied by a growing scepticism amongst the public about statements made by businesses:
Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief...And if the Nutrasweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either.
But if the ‘American Council on Science and Health’ and its panel of 200 ‘expert’ scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen... And if the ‘Calorie Control Council’ reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concern.
Ron Arnold, founder of the US wise use movement told a meeting of Canadian timber executives that front groups:
... can do things the industry can't. It can speak as public spirited people who support the communities and the families affected by the local issue. It can speak as a group of people who live close to nature and have more natural wisdom than city people ... It can evoke powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtue of the close knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller ...