Worried by the public concern and anger ignited by
Rachel Carsons 1962 book Silent Spring, the chemical
industry mounted a campaign to ridicule her premise that synthetic
chemicals had created unprecedented threats to wildlife and, possibly,
human health. An advertising agency hired by one chemical company
distributed thousands of copies of a spoof of Carson's book in which
insects take over the world. There were also efforts to destroy
her credibility. She was accused of participating in a communist
plot to cripple American agriculture. Companies threatened to withhold
advertising from garden magazines and weekly supplements if favorable
reviews of the book were published. Despite the industry campaign,
events vindicated Carson, who was dying of cancer at the time. Within
a year, 40 states had passed legislation regulating pesticides,
and the modern environmental movement was born.
These days, industry public relations efforts are generally more
subtle and more attuned to public opinion. A year ago, the
Chemical Manufacturers Association changed its name to the American
Chemistry Council. Public opinion research, a CMA spokesman
said, revealed that calling themselves "chemical manufacturers"
no longer worked because, to some extent, the public associated
the phrase with pollution and environmental problems.
"It was important to our members, staff and extended shareholders
to tell in a positive way how our products make life better, healthier
and safer, and the new name will help tell that story," Frederick
Webber, the association's president, said at the time in a prepared
The documents in the massive Ross archive reveal the industry's
determination over the years to track public attitudes and craft
its message accordingly. Before the CMA unveiled its trademarked
Responsible Care campaign in 1988, for example, every aspect of
the campaign was test-marketed.
Since the 1970s, the CMA has also used polling to measure the opinions
of journalists and news media executives. In trying to influence
the media, however, the industry does much of its public relations
work behind the scenes, often using surrogates to promote its point
In 1998, for example, Albuquerque Journal columnist Larry
Calloway came across a report from the New York-based American
Council on Science and Health (ACSH). The report, "The Greatest
Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times," impressed Calloway,
in part because of the long list of PhDs with respectable credentials
listed inside the cover page.
What Calloway did not know, and what the report did not include,
was that ACSH has been supported in large part by contributions
from companies such as American Cyanamid, Chevron, Dow Chemical,
Du Pont, Exxon, Monsanto and Union Carbide. The organization sends
out a continual stream of press releases and reports anchored by
one primary theme that environmental risks, especially the
risks of toxic chemicals, are not so great as the public is being
led to believe. The prophets of doom, not the profits of industry
are the real hazards to our health is a frequently quoted
one-liner from the organization's president.
In recent years, ACSH has stopped publishing its list of corporate
contributors. However, examinations of reports from previous years
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, authors of Trust Us, Were
Experts, show that as much as 76 percent of the ACSH budget
comes directly from industry or from foundations closely linked
In the report that initially impressed columnist Calloway, the ACSH
claimed that the banned pesticide DDT had never been a threat to
either wildlife or human health. But rather than run with a column
based solely on the ACSH material, as many reporters and columnists
at other newspapers did, Calloway did some checking. ACSH claimed
the scare over DDT was unfounded because a 1978 National Cancer
Institute report had concluded that DDT was not carcinogenic. What
the 1998 ACSH report failed to mention was the much more relevant
fact that in the two decades since 1978, after extensive testing,
both the EPA and the National Toxicology Project had listed DDT
as a probable human carcinogen.
Calloway opted not to run the health scare story.
Too often, however, deadline pressures and constant demand for new
material put reporters in the awkward position of relying on press
releases for stories. Journalists may be skeptical of industry PR,
but frequently are quick to use material from seemingly neutral
sources - especially if they carry an academic or scientific imprimatur.
Public relations firms know this, and sometimes go to great lengths
to disguise the source of their messages.
In the early 1990s, the Chlorine Institute (now called the Chlorine
Chemistry Council), the trade association for companies making or
using chlorine-based chemicals, partially funded a scientific conference
to review the health effects of dioxin a byproduct of chemical
plants and paper mills that use chlorine to bleach wood pulp and other
industrial processes. However, according to a report in the journal
Science, the Institute studiously kept itself out of
the picture, and many of the scientists who participated were
unaware that the chlorine industry was involved.
Afterwards, a press release written by a PR firm employed by the
Chlorine Institute announced that the scientists had agreed that
dioxin was not toxic at low-level exposures. News organizations
across the country ran stories based on the press release. When
a number of conference participants cried foul, saying that they
had never reached any such conclusion, only a few of the reporters
who had written the original story followed
up with a second story correcting the record.
As this public relations campaign went forward, pressure mounted
for a relaxation of dioxin restrictions. The New York Times
reported in a front page article that dioxin was no more risky
than spending a week sunbathing." Other major newspapers repeated
that assertion. A later New York Times article declared that
billions of dollars are wasted each year in battling problems
that are no longer considered especially dangerous
The Wall Street Journal was one of the few publications to
raise questions about this new consensus in the press. In an article
headlined How Two Industries Created a Fresh Spin On the Dioxin
Debate, Jeff Bailey wrote that the EPAs reevaluation
of dioxin is as much a result of a well-financed public relations
campaign by the paper and chlorine industries as it is a result
of new research.
The industrys successful PR campaign had convinced many reporters
and much of the public that dioxin was less dangerous than once
believed. But EPAs ongoing scientific reassessment of dioxin
did not support that conclusion. By the mid-1990s, scientists from
universities, EPA and other agencies had produced convincing evidence
of the chemicals exceptional toxicity. Not only was dioxin
a potent carcinogen, it was shown to damage fetal development and
the immune system and to disrupt hormonal processes in animals
and was suspected of having the same effects in humans.
As of March 2001, a full decade after the reassessment began, EPAs
final report on dioxin still has not been approved - and regulations
intended to reduce levels of dioxin in the environment are stalled.
Ultimately, EPAs careful science may prevail and the agency
will move forward with tougher regulations. The public relations
strategy may not succeed in preventing new regulations altogether,
but it will have helped to delay them for a very long while.