DeSmog: PR fights back – against itself

Does information about the origin of climate change, the impact of climate change, and the potential solutions to climate change, get distorted by groups that have a vested interest in denial of the science? According to the Public Relations Agency DeSmog – founded in 2006 specifically to deal with the media pollution clouding our understanding of climate-change issues – the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”.

As we wearily try to psych ourselves up to participate in a vote that will provide a mandate to a political party to rule over us, the environmental collapse currently staring us in the face should be a prime feature in the manifesto of every party. However, are some parties ready to be rather economical with the truth about the causes of the climate crisis, in order not to offend some of the big corporations making large donations to their campaign coffers?

If we have some doubts about the “facts” presented, can we turn to an organisation like DeSmog to clear the air and provide us with a healthy dose of clean truth? Just how well organised and funded is the deliberate effort to spread confusion via incorrect information? And does there really need to be an agency specifically dedicated to ensuring that bad information is called out?

In order to form some opinions on these topics, we can consider the history of the ways and means by which various stakeholders through the ages have sought to influence public opinion, an activity known as public relations or PR.

PR has been around since before the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar introduced a daily paper to inform the citizens of his heroic exploits and beneficial policies. But whether your media of choice is printed paper, a 70 metre long embroidered Norman tapestry, or posts on a social media platform, the desire to mould public opinion has remained a key element for rulers striving for approval: and in the modern era, for corporations pushing for commercial success.

PR agencies were born in America around 1900. Prior to this, individual PR gurus found employment with the grandees of American capitalism, who discovered that profits and investment suffered if stories about worker exploitation formed the dominant narrative in the press. Even the richest of robber barons, William Vanderbilt, realised that public opinion was important for his bottom line.

So already we begin to encounter the inherent difficulty with PR. Do we have ethical PR, where the truth is used to bring the public around to the “correct” point of view, or do we have “spin”, where any distinction between persuasion and deception tends to be obliterated?

A seismic shift in PR practice occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century when a PR campaign of unparalleled sophistication was unleased upon the unsuspecting consumer. The stakes were huge. The gargantuan on-going profits of the cigarette manufacturers were under threat from scientifically verified claims that smoking was addictive and harmful to health. Philip Morris, the corporation behind brands such as Marlboro, launched a campaign in the 1950s to dispute the scientific findings that smoking results in lethal diseases.

The primary tactic in this PR campaign was to discredit the science, to create doubt in the mind of the consumer. It was very successful. For decades, the tobacco industry managed to stall legislation to limit cigarette advertising, and to fight off class actions in the US courts featuring claims for multi-billion dollar punitive damages. Eventually the truth was laid sufficiently bare, but the success of the PR campaign set the mould for the future.

Whenever an interested party faces damning evidence from the scientific community, threatening their profits or their position of power (or both), the default response is to deny the facts. “Denialism” entered the lexicon and conflict of interest between scientific endeavour and the agenda of interested parties was invented.

Warnings about another man-made cataclysmic phenomenon, threatening to ruin even more lives than tobacco smoking, began to surface in the 1980s. Scientists were observing changes in global temperatures, and could correlate these with increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

One significant source of the extra CO2 involved the burning of fuels derived from fossil resources. Internal reports at Shell Oil Company presented concerns to the management that continued fossil fuel burning, increasing in volume, had the potential to change global climatic patterns, with devastating consequences. Rather than act upon these warnings, the oil company executives reached swiftly for the PR file labelled “denialism”.

PR campaigns swung into action. There was no shortage of funding for new organisations that existed purely to oppose actions designed to address the problem. By now the tactics were familiar – the scientific community is ridiculed and counter-evidence with no substantiation is dreamt up. High profile mouthpieces are given media exposure to promote the denial. Large sums of money are spent to devise and communicate a counter argument. The message only has one motivation – self-interest for the wealthy individuals profiting from exploitation of resources.

Governments and individuals have stalled their response to the harmful effects of fossil fuel exploitation, confused by uncertainties invented via the PR agencies sub-contracted by the self-interest groups. Decades of concerted and well-funded effort has had the desired effect. Warnings have been ignored. The fossil fuel industry continues to expand and make enormous profits. Meanwhile, the planetary climate systems continue to spiral into an ever accelerating collapse.

Is the principle of DeSmog still a valid one? Do you have somewhere to turn to for a fair and balanced argument, based upon peer-reviewed science, to understand the reality of global climate change? Check out the site daily at desmog.com and make up your own mind about the PR…

Verity E Sayer

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