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Beyond greenwash: an insider's guide to duping the public.

It's remarkable how candidly people talk when they forget you're listening. In the February issue of the trade newsletter O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, the public-relations industry frankly assesses the failure of "greenwashing" (the promotion of absurd environmental claims by polluting industries), while boasting of its success in neutralizing environmentalists. The secret? "Environmental PR pros need to add another shade of green--that of greenbacks--to their palette," O'Dwyer's advises. "Successful PR people will be those that can blend the cold-hearted reality of 1990s economics with the 1970s touching, though somewhat naive, concern for Mother Earth."

The goal is to convince naive environmentalists that not poisoning the earth costs too darn much money. "Gone is the idealistic |Save the Whales' mentality of the 1980s," O'Dwyer's declares hopefully. In order to keep it from coming back, the newsletter recommends the use of "cost/benefit analyses" as well as the flat-out co-optation of environmental organizations with offers of money and jobs:

"Cash-rich companies, PR people say, are funding hard-up environmental groups in the belief the imprimatur of activists will go a long way in improving their reputation among environmentally aware consumers. Though activists may at first balk at working with corporate America, nonprofit groups are beginning to realize that private sector cash can increase an organization's clout and bankroll membership building programs."

Dale Didion, "Environmental Practice Director" for PR giant Hill and Knowlton, praises the "maturing" of e environmental movement. "Help them raise money," he counsels polluters. "Offer to sit on their board of directors." Besides demonstrating a "can-do spirit," he says, this "may also lead to a company hiring members of the environmental group's staff" who are available "at very reasonable prices."

For those environmentalists who have been increasingly willing to ally themselves with industry, this corporate equivalent of locker-room boasting should sound a cautionary note. (The Sierra Club itself has a strict screening process for prospective corporate donors that weeds out major polluters, consistent violators of environmental laws, and producers and vendors of environmentally damaging products. The result of this screening, on top of the Club's tough policy stands, is that its only regular and significant corporate contributor is Recreational Equipment Inc.)

The hard times that have made some environmental groups sell cheap have evidently made polluting industries more obdurate. As O'Dwyer's explains, "Profitable companies that have just tossed thousands onto unemployment lines because they aren't earning the margins demanded by hungry Wall Street tycoons are not going to roll over when some ... government official recommends a green regulation that may cost them some money.

"[Companies] are challenging federal mandates to install pricey pollution control gear that has no productivity benefits when it may be cheaper to close up shop and move to pollution-havens like Mexico.... The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the U.S. spends $130 billion a year to comply with federal environmental laws and regulations. |Is it worth it?' wonders John Paluszek, president of Ketchum Pr. |How much more should we spend for incremental improvements?'"

In O'Dwyer's, the bigfeet of the PR world advertise their prowess at getting this message across. A profile of the Dilenschneider Group, for instance, notes that it is "experienced in helping clients develop and communicate the |cost-vs-benefit' strategies" for "environmental problems such as nuclear power and municipal and hazardous waste management." Hill and Knowlton (which has handled the press for--among many others--Three Mile Island, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Canadian asbestos industry) is lauded for "organizing a media tour for scientists to present a balanced view of the role that chemicals play in the earth's atmosphere." Burson Marsteller can offer services such as "its effort to kill the Btu tax" for the American Energy Alliance. (Omitted from Ketchum's profile was the "crisis management plan" it prepared for the Clorox Corporation in 1991 in anticipation of anti-chlorine demonstrations and news reports in which it recommended branding demonstrators as "terrorists" and suing critical journalists for slander.)

The PR pros are upbeat; they believe that their message is finally getting through. Under the delightful subhead "Reporters lose innocence," O'Dwyer's lauds Keith Schneider's infamous "What Price Cleanup?" series in The New York Times as "a watershed event in green reporting." (See "Cost/Benefit Journalism," September/October 1993.) While front-page publication in the Times is a PR flack's dream, the Chemical Manufacturers Association has thoughtfully reprinted the series for anyone who might have missed it.

The "watershed" Schneider supposedly represents is a shift in public sympathy away from the victims of corporate pollution and toward the polluters. The vehicle for this transformation is the "cost/benefit analysis," a scientific-appearing comparison of the benefits of an environmental regulation with its economic costs. The heart of the technique is the "discounting" of future human lives. According to the Environmental Research Foundation's invaluable Hazardous Waste News, since dollars in hand today are worth more than dollars earned tomorrow, future dollars are typically "discounted" by 8 percent a year. Future lives are discounted as well; a $100,000 expenditure today to save a life 150 years away works out to a present value of $16.7 billion per life saved. "The |environmental PR firms' rely heavily on this technique," says Hazardous Waste News, "because it serves a strategic goal of demonstrating that regulations are ridiculously expensive."

It is also notoriously arbitrary; a recent EPA analysis of rules for oil-and-gas drilling wastes valued the "benefits" of reducing lead poisoning in children as the "present value of lost earnings," which it calculated to be $4,588 per lowered IQ point. Despite their bravado, the cost/benefit pushers have a sizable task before them. Some benefits--the howl of a wolf in the distance, a living forest that has never been cut, a child born with all its internal organs where they belong--are hard to value in dollars and cents. It's going to be a tough sell convincing the public to trade these priceless treasures for a corporation's improved bottom line.
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Title Annotation:public relations and environmentalism
Author:Rauber, Paul
Publication:Sierra
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Words:983
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