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Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

By John Stauber
and Sheldon Rampton


"All documents . . . are confidential," warned the September 7, 1990 memo from Betsy Gullickson, senior vice-president at the giant Ketchum public relations firm. "Make sure that everything-even notes to yourself-are so stamped. . . . Remember that we have a shredder; give documents to Lynette for shredding. All conversations are confidential, too. Please be careful talking in the halls, in elevators, in restaurants, etc. All suppliers must sign confidentiality agreements. If you are faxing documents to the client, another office or to anyone else, call them to let them know that a fax is coming. If you are expecting a fax, you or your Account Coordinator should stand by the machine and wait for it. We don't want those documents lying around for anybody to pick up."

The stakes were high for Ketchum's client, the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB), the business association of California raisin growers. In 1986, CALRAB had scored big with a series of clever TV commercials using the "California Dancing Raisins." The singing, dancing raisins, animated through a technique known as "claymation," were so popular that they had transcended their TV-commercial origins. Fan mail addressed to the Raisins was forwarded to Ketchum, along with phone inquiries from the media and public clamoring for live public performances. Ketchum obligingly supplied live, costumed characters dressed as the Raisins, who performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll and Christmas Tree Lighting, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and "A Claymation Christmas Celebration" on the CBS television network.

For CALRAB, of course, the real payoff came in raisin sales, which had risen 17 percent since the Dancing Raisins were first introduced. Behind the scenes, however, trouble was brewing, and Gullickson's secret memo outlined Ketchum's plan to "manage the crisis."

The "crisis" was a science writer named David Steinman. In 1985 while working for the LA Weekly, Steinman had written a story about fish contaminated from toxic waste dumped near his home in the Santa Monica Bay area, and was shocked when a test of his own blood showed astronomical levels of both DDT and PCBs. Steinman had read the research linking these chemicals to higher rates of cancer and other diseases, and started "wondering how many other poisons were in the food I ate. It started me asking why government officials, who had known about the dumping for years, had withheld the information for so long."

Steinman's investigation had uncovered evidence showing that hundreds of toxic carcinogens and other contaminants, mostly pesticides, are found routinely in US foods from raisins to yogurt to beef. For example, government inspectors found "raisins had 110 industrial chemical and pesticide residues in sixteen samples." Diet for a Poisoned Planet recommends that people avoid any but organically-grown raisins raised without pesticides.

By compiling this information in book form, Diet for a Poisoned Planet enables readers to make safer food choices. But before shoppers can use the information, they must first hear about the book, through media reviews and interviews with the author during a publicity campaign in the weeks after the book is published. And the California Raisin Advisory Board wanted to make sure that Steinman's book was dead on arrival.

According to the O'Dwyer's Directory of PR Firms, Ketchum is the sixth largest public relations company in the United States, receiving net fees of over $50 million per year. Headquartered in New York City, Ketchum represents a number of corporate food clients, including Dole Foods, Wendy's, the Potato Board, Oscar Mayer Foods, Miller Brewing, Kikkoman, H.J. Heinz, the Beef Industry Council, the California Almond Board, and the California Raisin Advisory Board. In addition to writing press releases and organizing news conferences, Ketchum aggressively markets its services in "crisis management," a growing specialty within the PR industry. In a profile written for O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, Ketchum boasted of its experience handling PR problems ranging "from toxic waste crises to low-level nuclear wastes, from community relations

at Superfund sites to scientific meetings where issues like toxicology of pesticides are reviewed."

Betsy Gullickson, senior vie-president at the firm is considered and expert in "food marketing strategic counsel," and Steinman's book is the type of "crisis" that she was hired to manage. Her 1990 memo, leaked to the press, outlined a plan to assign "broad areas of responsibility," such as "intelligence/information gathering," to specific Ketchum employees and to Gary Obenauf of CALRAB. Months before the publication of Diet for a Poisoned Planet, Ketchum sought to "obtain [a] copy of [the] book galleys or manuscript and publisher's tour schedule." Gullickson recommended that spokespeople "conduct one-on-one briefings/interviews with the trade and general consumer media in the markets most acutely interested in the issue. . . . The [Ketchum] agency is currently attempting to get a tour schedule so that we can 'shadow' Steinman's appearances; best scenario: we will have our spokesman in town prior to or in conjunction with Steinman's appearances."

Elizabeth M. Whelan is a prominent anti-environmentalist who heads the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a group funded largely by the chemical industry. The ACSH is also a client of Ketchum PR. On July 12, 1990, Whelan wrote a letter to then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu warning that Steinman and others "who specialize in terrifying consumers" were "threatening the US standard of living and, indeed, may pose a future threat to national security." Whelan's letter was copied to the heads of the government's Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Surgeon General. Whelan also contacted her friend, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, whom she calls a "close colleague." Dr. Koop joined the attack against Steinman's book, calling it "trash" in a statement mailed nationwide.

The advertising industry learned years ago that one of the best ways to influence an audience is to put its message in the mouth of a publicly-trusted expert such as a scientist, doctor or university professor. The PR industry has also mastered the art of using "third party" experts, a ruse which almost never fails to hoodwink supposedly cynical reporters. PR firms often use corporate funded "nonprofit research institutes" which provide "third party experts" to advocate on their behalf. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), for example, is a commonly-used industry front group that produces PR ammunition for the food processing and chemical industries.

Headed by Whelan, ACSH routinely represents itself as an "independent," "objective" science institute. This claim was dissected by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post in the March 1990 Columbia Journalism Review, which studied the special interests that fund ACSH. Kurtz reported that Whelan praises the nutritional virtues of fast food and receives money from Burger King. She downplays the link between a high fat diet and heart disease, while receiving funding from Oscar Mayer, Frito Lay and Land O'Lakes. She defends saccharin and receives money from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, NutraSweet and the National Soft Drink Association.

Whelan attacks a Nebraska businessman's crusade against fatty tropical oils-the unhealthy oils in movie popcorn-while she is in the pay of palm oil special interests. "There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country," she claims, while taking money from a host of pesticide makers. And Whelan speaks harshly of mainstream environmentalists, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Speaking to the Bangor Daily News, Whelan described the NRDC as an "ideologically fueled project" whose "target is the free-enterprise, corporate America system. I think they hate the word 'profit' and they'll do anything that will involve corporate confrontation."

Whelan defends her "scientific" views by saying that her findings have undergone "peer review" by experts among the scientists affiliated with her group. But Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest dismisses the bona fides of such "peer review" scientists: "They don't exactly publish in leading scientific journals. They publish pamphlets that are reviewed by their professional cronies of the regulated industries. It's science that's forced through a sieve of conservative philosophy."

Journalists rarely check the background of sources, so Whelan and the American Council on Science and Health are often quoted in the news as "scientific experts." For example, in a show hosted by Walter Cronkite titled "Big Fears, Little Risks," Cronkite introduced Whelan as one of "a growing number of scientists who fear that overstating the risk of environmental chemicals is actually threatening the health of Americans." In Fortune magazine,

Whelan appeared as the source in a story by Ann Reilly Dowd which stated, "A big part of the problem is that America's environmental policy making has increasingly been driven more by media hype and partisan politics than by sensible science. . . . Despite the waves of panic that roll over America each year, some 500 scientists surveyed by the American Council on Science and Health have concluded that the threat to life from environmental hazards is negligible." Neither Cronkite nor Dowd explained that the ACSH is an industry front group.

Excerpted from Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. (1995, Common Courage Press, Monroe, ME).