Several years ago, my mom watched Wag the Dog…and then she called me and said, “Is that what you do for a living?”
No, of course not! I don’t fabricate wars to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal. I don’t make up anything to distract from anything. That’s not the role of the communicator. But that’s certainly not what Hollywood or Washington, D.C. would have you believe.
The name of this blog (and our podcast and my book) is Spin Sucks because that’s a very common perception. When someone asks you what you do for a living and you say, “PR,” the reaction is almost always akin to, “Oh, you lie for a living.”
I most certainly do not—and neither do 99% of communicators. But there are some who do create wars to distract voters, who build perceptions based on alternative facts, and who completely change the conversation just because they can.
And because those are salacious stories and they make great headlines, the movies and the media focus on that. The rest of us doing the real work are boring.
But the real work the rest of us do is important, even if it is boring. After all, spin sucks.
The “Father” of Environmental PR
We had a lively conversation in the Spin Sucks Community about an article that recently ran on the BBC News website about the “father” of environmental PR, E. Bruce Harrison.
The article starts out with a very Dateline opening, “Thirty years ago, a bold plan was cooked up to spread doubt and persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. The little-known meeting—between some of America’s biggest industrial players and a PR genius—forged a devastatingly successful strategy that endured for years, and the consequences of which are all around us.”
Dun dun dun dun!
The story goes that Harrison and his team stood before the Global Climate Coalition and pitched them on doing work together. The GCC represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries and they were looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.
When the Coalition was created, President Bush, an oilman himself, was running the country so they saw little need to be concerned about the limitation of fossil fuel emissions.
A 30-Year Disinformation Campaign
That all changed, of course, when President Clinton was elected and he brought Al Gore, one of the biggest advocates—if not the advocate—of climate change initiatives into the White House.
That’s when Harrison and his team got to work. They started by reframing the issue. They would persuade people that the scientific facts weren’t settled and that alongside the environment, policymakers needed to consider how action on climate change would—in the view of GCC—negatively affect American jobs, trade, and prices.
They knew that if they said it enough times, people would begin to believe it—and journalists would begin to report it.
It was the beginning of a 30-year disinformation campaign that brought about alternative facts and made people not trust the science.
Al Gore called it “the equivalent of a war crime” because, even though the GCC disintegrated and the PR campaign ended in the late 90s, the tactics, the playbook, and the message of doubt have outlived their creators.
But Climate Change Isn’t Real…
The consequences are all around us. So much so that people joke about climate change not being real. Europe is having one of its hottest summers on record (without air conditioning, I might add) and we joke, ”Oh, but right…climate change isn’t real.”
There are some really interesting things that Harrison and his team did do, though. Had they used their powers for good, they would have been incredibly successful and ethical.
I often say that if Pablo Escobar had used his brain for good, he would have been the most successful man in history. He probably would not have died in his early 40s. In fact, he might even still be alive today, giving Elon Musk a run for his money.
But he did not use his brain for good; you know how that ended for him.
Using Our Powers for Good
The same thing goes for Harrison and his team.
Had they used their powers for good—for a campaign that wasn’t riddled with lies, disinformation, and alternative facts—they would have made great strides in the betterment of the world
When his team was interviewed, they said things like they regret the work they did, and had they not been young and naive, they would never have participated.
Ah, hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?
But let’s say they had used their powers for good. There are some things we can all learn from their campaign.
Their strategy was to work with journalists through an extensive media campaign. They did everything from placing quotes and pitching OpEds to deskside briefings and backgrounders.
They were prolific. Many reporters were assigned to write stories but didn’t understand all of the complexities of the issue so Harrison and his team wrote backgrounders to make their lives easier. Of course, those backgrounders didn’t include the science and only argued for climate change being a farce. But the backgrounders are what educated journalists enough to be able to write stories.
They wrote letters, glossy brochures, and monthly newsletters. All of this work eventually led to more than 500 specific mentions in the media in less than a year. As they did that, they hired external voices to help them make their case.
What You Can Learn
If you spend time doing media relations, you know scientists, economists, and academics are highly credible among journalists. Who among us has not hired experts to help us tell our stories? I know I have—from nutritionists to chefs and entomologists to scientists. When using experts for good to help you tell your story, they carry great weight.
At the time, most climate scientists agreed that climate change was a real issue that required action, but a small group argued there was no cause for alarm. These were the people Harrison and his team hired.
They paid them to give speeches, write OpEds, and appear on local TV and radio stations via media tours.
Journalists are often actively looking for contrarians so they can weigh both sides of an issue and report without bias. But what Harrison and his team did went beyond. They didn’t just provide the contrarians, they made them the stars. And journalists went along for the ride.
In this situation, many people are to blame—the contrarians, the journalists, and the GCC. But what Harrison and his team did was unethical, wrong, and downright criminal.
But if you learn anything from them, it’s that being prolific and providing journalists what they need to do their jobs will make you a success.
Use your powers for good. Don’t spin. Don’t lie. Don’t massage the truth. But do use some of these ideas to help tell your story.