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Tricks of the trade in PR battle: …world’s most powerful businesses, eg Shell… badly hit by ‘popular uprisings’ facilitated by the internet

Irish Times Article By John Fanning
Published: Jul 28, 2007

EXTRACT: Some of the world’s most powerful businesses, eg Shell, Nike, McDonald’s, have been badly hit by “popular uprisings” in recent years, facilitated by the internet.

Public Relations The editors of this wittily titled book are sociologists from Strathclyde University and they set out their stall with admirable clarity. Not only is the subtitle “Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy”, but the first sentence reads: “public relations was created to thwart and subvert democratic decision-making”.

The editors wrote the first and concluding chapters, with the rest being written by an assortment of academics: sociologists, political and media studies scholars, and freelance investigative journalists. The first few chapters take us on a quick tour of the public relations business, mainly from a UK perspective. The official UK industry definition: “the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”, is substituted with their own version: “a growing body of practices used to advance and inhibit messages in the media and other domains in order to advance and manipulate the opinions of target audiences”.

The rest of the book is devoted to a series of case histories which can be divided roughly into two categories, commercial and political, although there is a fair degree of overlap because so many of the commercial objectives involve political access of one kind or another. Examples include Exxon’s efforts to calm fears about global warming, Monsanto’s attempts to promote genetically modified foods in Europe, Coca Cola’s campaign to reassure about their environmental impact in Latin America, and the salmon farming industry’s efforts to assuage fears of excessive use of pesticides.

A number of “dirty tricks” are described but they’re not really all that dirty. The authors make great play with the supposed “three Ds” of public relations: deny anything wrong, delay for as long as possible and dominate any response – but in my experience these tactics, especially the first two, are now more likely to backfire and would not be recommended by any professional firm. They also chart the growing use of third-party front organisations which appear to be independent but are funded by businesses to support a particular line, referred to in the trade as “Astroturfs” – false grassroots. But the most important lesson from all of these examples is that none of them was very successful.

The political case histories include the increased presence of aggressive US consultancies offering “democratic assistance” to political parties around the world, with a particular emphasis on Eastern Europe, a chapter purporting to claim links between Britain’s New Labour and the extreme right in the US, the preponderance of corporate lobbyists in Brussels and attempts by political activists on the right in Germany to create a neo-liberal agenda. But the evidence of outright corruption is unconvincing.

American political consultants have been involved in Irish elections and although they bring a level of sophistication in terms of more ruthlessly accurate targeting of key groups of swing voters, there’s no evidence that they’ve made all that much difference even though they were used by the two main parties. The chapter on New Labour is too far-fetched to be taken seriously, the reasons for the number of lobbyists in Brussels seem self-evident, and if people want to turn the Germans into little PDs then they surely have a democratic right to do so. The most ambitious venture into “democracy assistance” was the Bush administration’s cack-handed attempt to influence Muslim opinion in the Middle East by setting up a US-financed Arab radio station. The result was a complete failure and the station was closed down shortly afterwards.

THIS BOOK DOES, however, raise serious issues about the way public relations and marketing communications in general can be used by businesses to influence the democratic process in a way that could be inimical to the rights of the individual citizen around the world. We’re not exactly immune to these developments ourselves. A quarter of a century ago, before the tribunals were a mote in the eye of the Law Library, the newly crowned Freeman of Dublin, Thomas Kinsella, wrote “Dirty money gives dirty access./ And we were the generation/ of positive disgrace”. They were to prove prophetic words, but if we want to be equipped to confront “dirty money” in future, we require a more balanced understanding of the processes involved than are presented in this book. For a start we need to accept that the wisdom of crowds means the public are not nearly as gullible, powerless or intimidated as they may appear from ivory towers. There is also the fact that the balance of power has now shifted significantly in favour of the public due to new technology. Some of the world’s most powerful businesses, eg Shell, Nike, McDonald’s, have been badly hit by “popular uprisings” in recent years, facilitated by the internet.

A good example of the newly empowered citizen is the commercial that has had the greatest impact to date on the 2008 US presidential election, a take-off of the famous Apple Macintosh 1984 advertisement with Hilary Clinton superimposed as Big Brother. It was made for nothing by a geeky Obama supporter, in his living room, using an off-the-shelf editing programme, then posted on You Tube, and it has already been seen by more than three million people. But the most powerful defence of all against the ability of corporate public relations to “thwart democratic decision-making” is a professional, authoritative and relentless business press, whose reporters keep a vigilant Skibbereen Eagle’s eye on the business world and never reflect Danny Blanchflower’s famous “fans with typewriters” stereotype. International, national and provincial papers, please copy.

John Fanning is chairman of McConnell’s Advertising and a former chairman of the Marketing Society and the Marketing Institute. His book, The Importance of Being Branded: An Irish Perspective, was published last year

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy Edited by William Dinan and David Miller Pluto Press, 309pp. GBP11.50 and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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