Media Strategies
Trade Secrets

Worried by the public concern – and anger – ignited by Rachel Carson’s 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 statement.

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 of view.

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, We’re Experts, show that as much as 76 percent of the ACSH budget comes directly from industry or from foundations closely linked with industry.

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 EPA’s 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 industry’s successful PR campaign had convinced many reporters and much of the public that dioxin was less dangerous than once believed. But EPA’s 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 chemical’s 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, EPA’s final report on dioxin still has not been approved –- and regulations intended to reduce levels of dioxin in the environment are stalled. Ultimately, EPA’s 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.

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