Flacking Cancer, Flacking Coal – The Public Relations Industry, Tobacco and Climate Change

by Dan Zegart, author of Civil Warriors

I remember when it was tobacco that desperately needed an emergency public relations rescue, the way fossil fuels do now.

There are certain kinds of companies you don’t want to get caught representing, as illustrated by the flap over Edelman Worldwide’s tortured responses to the Climate Investigations Center’s survey about whether it acknowledges the threat of climate change or would represent companies that deny climate change.

Unfortunately, the client’s need for public relations increases in direct proportion to its public toxicity. And the greater the need, the more they’ll pay.  And PR firms are the beneficiaries.

All of which is why, of the twenty-five largest PR firms that received the Climate Investigations Center’s questionnaire, sixteen – and every one of the top ten firms – worked for Big Tobacco at one time or another. (see Tobacco Roots below with list of companies)

A trip through documents unearthed during lawsuits by the state attorneys general against the cigarette makers demonstrates the immense range of Big PR’s involvement with the tobacco industry, from handling publicity for the cigarette-funded Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament to creating front organizations to pass laws making it harder for sick smokers to sue the industry.

I don’t remember that I ever asked the PR firms representing tobacco whether they believed it hadn’t been proven cigarette smoking was addictive and caused cancer, but that was Big Tobacco’s position when I started covering them in 1994.  By 2000, when I published my book on the “cigarette wars” between the industry and its various antagonists – particularly plaintiff’s lawyers – they had finally admitted the truth.

Of course, if anyone ever needed help relating to the public, it was the cigarette industry. And they got plenty of it. To be precise, they got at least sixteen of the largest PR firms in the world.

For instance:

  1. Edelman Worldwide worked for both global cigarette giants – Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro, and British American Tobacco, which had Kool, Lucky Strike and other brands.  In 1997, Edelman became BAT’s global PR manager, helping the company push into China, where Edelman promoted the BAT-sponsored “Rally of China” auto races.  For Philip Morris, Edelman did everything from domestic sports and events marketing to trying to neutralize an American Cancer Society lobbyist in Wisconsin.
  2. Burson Marsteller was one of a number of firms involved in the industry’s worldwide fight against restrictions on public smoking following studies proving that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) caused cancer. Burson sent a large team of flacks to try to spin reporters covering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s hearings on proposed workplace smoking restrictions, and also coordinated with other firms working on ETS, like…
  3. APCO Worldwide, which partnered with Burson and Philip Morris, particularly in constructing “coalitions” with groups, like the restaurant industry, who also opposed indoor smoking bans. For its part, APCO helped build a state-by-state campaign to promote a front organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition that was supposed to fight “politicized science” of all sorts, but was actually created to fuel public doubt about whether ETS was really harmful.  Meanwhile, APCO, which boasted of its covert skill in building phony grass roots front organizations for its clients – was hard at work on another front for the cigarette makers.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse – CALA

In 1994, I was a daily newspaper reporter in Trenton, New Jersey, working on a story about a group of bills in the state legislature that would have made it much harder to sue corporations for products that hurt or kill consumers.

So-called tort reform wasn’t exactly a burning issue among the general public. You’d be hard-pressed to find two people on the street who even knew what those words meant. Yet on my desk was a pile of press releases from a group calling itself Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse supporting the bills and decrying an alleged flood of “nuisance” lawsuits it claimed drove up the cost of living and hurt small businesses. The CALA coalition seemed to have signed up a large number of business owners and individuals.

But when I phoned CALA members, I discovered an interesting thing: Not one of them paid any money to join. Yet the group had a full-time press officer, was running a slick TV ad blitz in one of the most expensive media markets in the country and busing supporters into Trenton for rallies and press conferences.  Someone was spending tens of thousands of dollars a week to make sure tort reform passed the legislature. But who?

The answer came when I checked out CALA’s New Jersey headquarters, which happened to be located in the offices of the chief lobbyist for Philip Morris, who was actually running CALA.  It turned out the tort reform effort was largely designed to protect the cigarette industry from lawsuits by sick smokers, along with asbestos manufacturer Owens-Corning, which was being sued by thousands of workers who contracted lung disease from inhaling tiny asbestos fibers.

CALA wasn’t only a New Jersey phenomenon, but would soon comprise some 40 organizations nationwide, sometimes under slightly different names. This juggernaut – the full details emerged later in industry documents unearthed, ironically enough, through lawsuits – was largely the creation of what is now APCO Worldwide, which was hired by Philip Morris to sponsor or create not only CALA but dozens of other tort reform organizations, some of which still exist. (APCO did other things for tobacco as well, such as creating a database called Common Ground, which APCO described as a “very comprehensive system to monitor anti-tobacco organizations.”)

“A Shield and a Spear”

Professional and scientific front organizations, astro-turf grass roots campaigns, databases on opponents – it’s all part of the tool kit Big PR now brings to the fossil fuel industry, a defense-in-depth refined through many campaigns over many generations.

John W. Hill, who founded Hill and Knowlton in 1927, wrote that PR provided industry with “a shield and a spear.  It can defend or it can attack as the need may be.”  It was Hill who first understood that the scale and complexity of modern corporate issues meant one-man PR operations were doomed. Realizing that press relations was only a part of what a PR shop needed to offer, he turned Hill and Knowlton into a multi-armed behemoth that could research and master technical subjects or ferret out weaknesses in the opposition, plan a PR campaign, schmooze politicians – and do it all, when necessary, on an emergency basis as a part of “crisis management.”

The big crisis came in 1953. With the tobacco companies reeling from a series of powerful scientific studies tieing cigarettes to lung cancer, Hill came up with the idea of creating the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, which would reassure smokers by communicating “the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer.”

The idea for TIRC came largely from Hill’s experience in 1951 with the food industry, for which he managed the negative fall-out from Congressional hearings into the safety of chemicals in food.  Rather than try to actually prove the chemicals safe, a difficult, perhaps impossible job,  Hill put his energy into convincing the public that the industry’s trade organization, the Manufacturing Chemists Association, was a trustworthy source of information on the issue.

TIRC was unveiled with full-page ads in 448 newspapers – a combined readership of over 43 million – on January 4, 1954. The ads promised the industry would spend whatever it took to discover whether there really was anything wrong with cigarettes, and if there was, to fix it.

The strategy worked. Newspapers uncritically accepted TIRC’s legitimacy, portraying the cancer issue as a true controversy, with two sides.  By February 1956,  cigarette sales were surging and stock prices had recovered. Articles on smoking as a factor in disease had become scarce. In a tour de force, a small group of companies and a few public relations men had succeeded in completely redirecting American public opinion on a critical matter of health in just two years.  In so doing, John Hill converted PR from a janitorial enterprise that cleaned up after bad image moments like exploding cars and toxic soft drinks into one that could redirect public discourse, shape legislation and move nations.

Hiding From Your Legacy

The Hill and Knowlton story contains two important lessons that might bear on Big PR’s role in modern climate denial.

It appears that John Hill eventually became seriously disenchanted with his tobacco client. For one, he never mentioned his cigarette work in his autobiography, The Making of a Public Relations Man. The word “tobacco” never appears in the book. Hill and Knowlton quit working for the industry in 1969 as lawyers became intimately involved in deciding what research to fund, an idea that Hill apparently couldn’t stomach.

And secondly, despite relentless efforts, TIRC was never able to convince any of the leading science writers for newspapers or magazines that there was any real controversy about whether cigarettes caused disease.

Which shows a PR firm will sometimes ditch a really dirty client.  And that education is the public’s shield and spear in fighting deception.

Tobacco Roots of Top PR Firms

Sixteen top PR firms had various contracts with tobacco companies, with links to the Tobacco Legacy database.

















Posted by Dan Zegart