Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy

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In today’s media driven world, so much of the information and images we are exposed to comes from the Public Relations (PR) industry. PR firms are generally thought of when it comes to advertising and commercial campaigns, but they have been involved in electoral politics, foreign policy campaigns, and increasingly are the ones that create the news. In fact, the PR industry in this country was really developed by the Wilson administration to convince the American public of this country’s need to enter WWI. The group that worked on that campaign was the Creel Commission, also known as the Committee on Public Information. Several members of that commission, such as Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, went on to become some of the most influential propagandists in the 20th Century.

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy is a collection of essays on the contemporary role of the public relations industry that follows the legacy of the Creel Commission. The co-editors of the book, William Dinan and David Miller also wrote the first essay, which lays the foundation of how the PR industry is an assault on democracy. They identify 6 main charges against the PR industry:

1) It is overwhelmingly carried out for vested powerful interests, mainly corporations.

2) It is not open and transparent about its means or even about its clients and the interests it is working for.

3) It characteristically involves deception and manipulation.

4) It does not engage in democratic debate, but rather seeks to subvert it in the interests of its clients.

5) Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and other ‘ethical’ activities are all subordinated to corporate strategy.

6) PR has played a crucial role at the cutting edge of corporate power in the neoliberal revolution.

These six charges of investigated in the remaining essays, which look at PR in the US and England. There are a variety of PR applications that are addressed in this book: the role of Washington PR, farming salmon, Exxon, biotech, arms trade, US Democracy programs abroad, the London Stock Exchange, and Coca Cola. I will touch on just a few of these issues.

The essay on the biotech industry’s use of PR is written by Jonathan Matthews, the co-founder of GM Watch and Lobby Watch. This essay deals primarily with what the biotech industry did at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a way to undermine the message and effort of international environmental activists, the biotech industry staged a protest by what we thought to be poor, third world farmers. These “farmers” were claiming that people like Vandana Shiva were responsible for the starvation of millions of people because they opposed GM foods. What Matthews discovered was quite fascinating and very instructive for those who work on international justice and environmental issues. Matthews found out that Monsanto and groups like Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are the ones who staged the protest against international activists. CEI even created an independent webpage called which has now morphed into Bureaucrash, a website designed for free-market activists. The founders of this website also created the NGO known as the Sustainable Development Network which also promotes the free market and downplays issues like global warming. What Matthews and others found out about these protestors is that they were paid to protest, and that most of them were there because of trade issues. Many of the protestors wore T-shirts that said things like “Stop Global Whining” or “Biotechnology for Africa.” When approached by people from the summit they soon discovered that the protestors were told to be there and that most of them did not speak English, even though all the t-shirts they were wearing were in English. To make matters worse, one journalist discovered that these “protestors” were brought to the demonstration on a bus that was paid for by the PR company Burson-Marstellar, who was hired by Monsanto. In fact, Monsanto was behind the whole effort to discredit international activists, all for the purpose of promoting GM foods globally. The result of this orchestrated campaign made little impact on the Summit, but the protestors received substantial coverage in most of the US media, thus legitimizing Monsanto’s propaganda message.

The chapter by Laura Miller is quite instructive, especially since the US is in the midst of another Presidential Election. Her essay is entitled “Powers Behind the Throne: Washington’s Top Political Strategists.” Miller works at the Center for Media and Democracy. She begins her piece by identifying four large corporate and political campaign strategists: The DCI Group, Feather Larson Synhorst-DCI, FYI Messaging, and TSE Enterprises. According to Miller, each of these groups are linked by a single person, Thomas Synhorst, who happens to be a founding member of each group. Synhorst used to work for the big tobacco company R.J. Reynolds and several electoral campaigns, so he knows how to manipulate the system. These groups that Miller has identified develop campaigns and strategies for their clients to gain access to and lobby members of Congress.

In 2000, when Microsoft was facing anti-trust lawsuits, they hired DCI. DCI helped the company to influence public opinion and to effectively lobby Congress by creating new trade groups such as the Association for Competitive Technology and Americans for Technology Leadership. These groups used what was believed to be a fake letter writing campaign to newspapers across the country to present what appeared to be “a surging grassroots movement behind Microsoft.”

Another campaign these groups orchestrated was the creation of the group Progress for America. Created in 2001 and with close ties to the Republican Party, PFA led campaigns in support of tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments and energy legislation. When the Federal Election Commission decided to postpone its decision on regulating so-called 527 Groups, PFA created a spin off 527 Group called Progress for America Voter Fund. This group went on to raise millions of dollars for the Re-elect Bush/Cheney campaign. The Democrats have created their own 527 Groups, most notably the Democratic Joint Victory Campaign 2004, which brought in $65.5 million. Many of the 527 Groups that the Democrats created were used to target the Dean campaign. What Miller demonstrates is that these types of groups have tremendous power when it comes to shaping Washington politics. This type of political manipulation may not fit into the traditional PR model, but they are another manifestation of how PR efforts can undermine democracy.

This collection of essays not only provides excellent case studies in contemporary corporate PR campaigns it provides readers with skills to, not only ask critical questions about the role of PR firms, but to identify potential tactics and strategies that are anti-democratic. Reading Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy can arm journalists and activists with necessary tools to shine the light on deceptive corporate practices and create more accountability.

William Dinan and David Miller, eds., Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, (Pluto Press, 2007).

Author: mediamouse

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