If you are even remotely insecure about your career choice, don’t pick up Trust Us, We’re Experts, the new volume from PR Watch editor John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, who last collaborated on Toxic Sludge is Good for You. Their first book was replete with overwrought anti-corporate sensationalism, but this new tome is a serious work of public relations criticism, surprisingly even-handed and painstakingly researched, packed with example of dubious practice and duplicitous action.
Those familiar with Stauber’s work won’t find much to surprise them. About half the cases cited have been covered in PR Watch or were included in Toxic Sludge: perhaps (an optimist might conclude) because the kind of practices that provoke Stauber and Rampton’s ire are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the remaining cases are familiar from coverage in other public relations trade publications or from the mainstream media.
Nor is the central thesis of the book (or at least the book’s marketing blurb) particularly original, focusing on the use and abuse of supposedly independent experts—most of the bought and paid for by corporate America or its PR agents—to provide “third party endorsement” to corporate communications. As the authors claim, “The media stage on which much of modern life is conducted has created two kinds of experts—the spin doctors behind the scenes, and the visible experts they select, cultivate, and offer up for public consumption.”
Stauber and Rampton produce a plethora of examples of experts whose testimony on behalf of industry is tainted by their financial dependence on the corporations they defend, from the so-called Independent Institute, defender of Microsoft’s rapacious monopolistic practices and recipient of that same software company’s largesse to academic scientists whose research is funded by big business—a dilemma detailed more thoroughly in Cynthia Crossen’s Tainted Truth.
But the most intriguing aspect of Trust Us is the authors’ attempt to explain why companies mislead the public, or try to hide their involvement in campaigns of persuasion. They reach a compelling—and troubling—conclusion.
“Regardless of their scientific limitations, theories of human psychology figure prominently in the thinking of the public relations industry,” say the authors. “What is more important than their actual effectiveness is the seemingly authoritative justification that they provide for the PR worldview—a belief that people are fundamentally irrational and that therefore a class of behind-the-scenes manipulators is necessary to shape opinion for the public’s own good.”
They trace this patronizing view of the masses back to Edward Bernays, the self-styled father of public relations, citing an interview Bernays gave PR historian Stuart Ewen. Said Ewen, “Repeatedly, he maintained that, while most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exists an intelligent few who have been charged with contemplating and influencing the tide of history…. He expressed little respect for the average person’s ability to think out, understand, or act upon the world in which we live.”
Such an attitude is anti-democratic, say Stauber and Rampton, and it’s hard to disagree: If people really are so incapable of rational thought, surely it’s irresponsible to let them vote on issues that determine the future path of our society? On a more pragmatic note, such an attitude will ultimately erode the credibility that is PR’s stock in trade. In essence, the book suggests, the subliminal message that this kind of public relations sends to the public is, “Trust us, even though we don’t trust you.”
Consider the example of the biotechnology industry, cited more than once in Trust Us. As biotech products entered the food chain, the huge life sciences companies that were leading the technological revolution did all they could to ensure that the debate was conducted with as little public participation as possible. In the United States, the biotech industry circumvented any public debate of genetically modified foods. Instead, it first worked within the scientific community to build consensus about the efficacy of bioengineering in agriculture, and then presented these experts to legislators and regulators to convince them that biotech food was safe, that labeling was unnecessary.
“In Europe, however, this disdain for the consumer backfired badly,” Rampton and Stauber say. Consumers, furious that they had been neither consulted nor informed about a significant change in their food supply, revolted. Supermarket chains, under pressure from those consumers, pulled GM food products from their shelves. Lawmakers, facing angry questions from their constituents, began to consider stringent controls—far more stringent than would have emerged from open debate.
More important perhaps, “consumers’ faith in the government and retailers as watchdogs over food safety could be broken,” warned a recent issue of Supermarket News.
What’s missing from Stauber and Rampton’s critique is any kind of recognition that both sides of the corporate-activist debate use similar techniques and display similar attitudes. When the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls fettuccine alfredo “a heart attack on a plate,” it’s not doing anything to advance the cause of sound science, and when various Naderite groups refuse to disclose how much of their funding comes from trial lawyers they are not doing anything to inspire confidence in the independence of their findings.
Similarly, Stauber and Rampton criticize the anti-junk science website operated by Steven Milloy, who claims that trial lawyers workwith “environmental Chicken Littles, power-drunk regulators, and unethical-to-dishonest scientists.” They point out that such characterizations say nothing about the quality of the science produced by those people, consisting instead of “ad hominem attacks on the motives, morals, or competence of anyone who differs from the worldview of their authors.”
Milloy’s site is pretty much intellectually indefensible, but if Stauber and Rampton want to discuss ad hominem attacks, anyone who has had to deal with activist groups—environmentalists, or anti-tobacco protestors, or members of the religious right—knows that they attack the character of corporate executives as a matter of course: the prevailing assumption is that anyone on the payroll of a major corporation puts the interests of his or her shareholders before any concern for consumers, financial considerations ahead of ethical ones.
Both sides need to recognize that transparency is the only strategy that can deliver long-term credibility. If scientists, economists and others who testify—in court or in the op-ed columns of The Wall Street Journal—on behalf of corporate interests have received funding from the companies they defend, they need to be up-front about that. In many cases, it’s the attempt to cover up the connection between a company and its defenders that creates the impression that something sinister is going on.
The inevitable long-term consequence of communications strategies that circumvent or manipulate the general public is an erosion of public trust in whatever institutions are co-opted by business. If the academics, scientists, regulators and other experts recruited by big business come to be seen as mere agents of corporate America, then the commodity that makes them valuable—their credibility—will be destroyed. Corporate public relations professionals need to remember that control—the kind they sometimes seek to exercise over so-called independent experts—is the antithesis of credibility.
At the end of the day, public relations professionals have to learn to trust the public to which they seek to relate. If they don’t, they might as well abandon any notion of building relationships—supposedly what this business is all about—and recognize that they are mere propagandists.