This isn't to say that all PR is unethical, but because today's corporations will spend whatever it takes to win, many PR companies will sell their soul when the promised financial reward is big enough. Once they've danced with the devil, their loyalty to the client outweighs the public's right to truth. Any for-profit corporation that tells you there is no underlying financial self-interest in its agenda is lying to you. PATH was never about electric grid "reliability", "congestion" or "need", it was always about a huge profit to be made by Allegheny/FirstEnergy and American Electric Power. Large corporations will spend millions of dollars on PR spin when they stand to garner billions in return, and PATH is no exception. However, there is one fundamental difference between other corporations undertaking spin campaigns and PATH doing so. PATH used money that belonged to millions of electric customers in 13 states to finance their great deception, thanks to FERC-granted incentives. It cost them nothing, and if they had been good at it, they may have gotten away with it. But PATH hired Charles Ryan Associates for "performance of communications and public relations services relating to the siting and construction of the PATH Allegheny 500 kV transmission line."
Another component of a good spin campaign includes a charm offensive, which attempts to bolster the corporate image. When they are "charming", they are trustworthy, responsible, public benefactors, doing the "right" thing, contributing to the economy, and are part of the solution to a societal problem. PATH tried to be charming, but it more closely resembled one of those funny birthday cards where the hot guy/girl on the front turns into a grinning chimpanzee when you open it. This didn't stop them from trying though. PATH's "charm" made good use of ratepayer money to practice "corporate stewardship". They also tossed a mere pittance of the profit they were making from the ratepayers back into our communities by making "donations". They also promised jobs and increased tax revenue, and then proceeded to have the properties they had purchased for $4.5M in Loudoun County, Va. removed from the tax rolls.
The crooked PR companies use a closely-guarded Playbook to influence legislators and regulators through the manipulation of public opinion, all to benefit the corporations they work for. Not surprisingly, most of the tricks in the Playbook come from the king of spin, the tobacco industry, who pioneered and developed these techniques over many years. Because they were so successful, other industries wanted in on tobacco's success and now the business of spin is firmly entrenched in corporate culture. Other recent examples of corporate-funded spin include BP and climate change.
Now that you know why they create front groups as part of a PR spin campaign, let's examine the way these front groups operate. Front groups are the most prevalent form of the third party propaganda technique. When a corporation is not held in high esteem and the public's trust in them ranks low, as is the case with AEP and FirstEnergy, the corporations revert to creation of front groups to manipulate favorable opinion they cannot create honestly. The industry lacks true grassroots support. Front groups give the illusion that disinterested individuals have thrown their support behind a project. But why would any citizens enthusiastically support a corporate initiative that is going to cost them more money? The front group attempts to drum up a massive amount of support for the corporate initiative. Even if they fail, they still try to create at least the appearance of immense support. The front group carries out a disinformation campaign with the goal of defusing or deflecting negative commentary and discrediting opponents.
In the Playbook, any public opinion counter to corporate goals is dealt with by creating front groups. PR firm Burson-Marsteller is responsible for many of the tobacco industry front groups. It should come as no surprise that PATH partner Allegheny Energy used Burson-Marsteller to create front groups for the TrAIL project. PATH admitted in discovery, "Burson-Marsteller was originally contracted to perform these services for the TrAIL Project and once the PATH Project was initiated, it was determined that since the coalitions promote energy infrastructure development in general, the PATH Project should also contribute to the coalitions." Unfortunately for the power companies, the front groups were subsequently transferred over to Charles Ryan Associates, under whose poor management they were exposed during the PATH fight.
From the Playbook, here are the steps corporations take to set up a successful front group:
1. Hire a big, well-connected PR firm known for deception and spin.
2. Throw the PRSA Code of Ethics out the window. The speed with which ethics are abandoned can be directly correlated to the amount of money offered.
3. The PR company sets up front groups, choosing a name that also works as a message, such as "Coalition for Reliable Power", in the case of PATH. The best name will be misleading and make the public feel good about their choosing to join the coalition. Obviously, "Shills for Increased Corporate Profit" wouldn't be a good name, although it describes a front group's purpose correctly.
4. The PR company coerces and coordinates allies by recruiting third party "members" from business groups, unions, and Chambers of Commerce (who have a long history of cooperating with stealth PR initiatives on behalf of corporations). These business and political allies are used as shills to spread the front group's message and to help recruit even more members from their business contacts. Ideally, recruited members will be a mix of different types: small businesses, citizens, other corporations, other front groups and paid "experts." As the newly recruited members get further and further from the original "grasstops", the coalition members are being manipulated just as much as the public. The majority of "members" have no idea who funds their "coalition" or why.
5. The PR company creates messages for the group based on propaganda and manipulation of public opinion. This tactic is right out of Mein Kampf.
6. The corporation launders money through the PR firm so funding of front group activities cannot be traced back to the corporation. A front group never mentions the source of their funding! Corporations must keep their financial support of front groups hidden or else the credibility of the coalition tanks and public knowledge of the deception causes even more public backlash and distrust of the corporation. PATH took it one step further, creating two degrees of separation by having their PR contractor, CRA, hire a local sub-contracting PR company to run the front group in each state.
In the case of PATH's front groups, the three sub-contractors managed by CRA were:
Note: Read the complete contracts and purchase orders for additional tasks involved in running these front groups.
1. For the Marylanders for Reliable Power, The Artemis Group, who was contracted to: develop and implement a public advocacy campaign; develop third party support and champions; develop "grasstops" (a few key friends who are in on the scheme); and coalition development and recruitment.
2. For the West Virginians for Reliable Power (or Energy), Brown Communications (note how they are "proud members of the PRSA"!), who was contracted to: assist PATH-WV grow and promote the West Virginians for Reliable Power (WVRP) coalition in order to build support for rebuilding and expanding West Virginia and the nation’s aging electric infrastructure. The extensive list of tasks is footnoted as follows: *These tactics and activities would be timed around key dates associated with the approval process for the PATH-WV project.
3. For the Virginians for Reliable Energy, Charles Ryan Associates, who was directed to sub-contract with McGuireWoods Consulting to: coordinate efforts to facilitate PATH Allegheny’s involvement and activity in Virginia regarding the PATH project and the management of a Reliable Power Coalition in Virginia. Subcontractors, including McGuireWoods Consulting will be utilized in this effort.
If you want to have a little fun, here are a couple of ways to spot a front group:
1. Their website domain name is owned by a PR company. Real grassroots groups are short on funding and are never represented by PR professionals. Real grassroots websites are a "do it yourself" job.
2. Their website doesn't provide a physical address or phone number, or if there is a phone number, it's a cell phone or a phone number belonging to a PR company. If an address is provided, it may be a mail drop or the office address of the PR firm.
3. The "spokesperson" for the front group is employed by a PR firm. Check the name of the spokesperson against employee rosters of suspect PR firms.
4. The front group is not a legal entity. Check with the state entity responsible for corporate registration. PR firms cannot create legal entities for front groups because that leaves a money trail.
Back to the Playbook - here are the next steps once the group is created and has a "membership":
7. The PR firm writes Letters to the Editor and op-ed pieces and places them in local newspapers, using a member's name as the author. The member doesn't have to do a thing except allow their name to be used! The letter or editorial conveys a message that the corporation cannot without appearing self-serving.
8. To make this work, the PR firm must have connections/relationships with editors, publishers and newspaper staff.
9. Because the PR firm has connections, they can also influence tone and content of articles.
This part didn't work for PATH because their main PR firm, Charles Ryan Associates, didn't have the connections to pull it off. The PATH battle for the public's ear took place in the local news sources for communities affected by the project. Even CRA's sub-contractors didn't have the right connections because they were based in Charleston, Annapolis and Richmond, far removed from the majority of the opposition and area of concern.
However, the Playbook tactics do work when applied correctly. This is because credible news sources are declining while corporate spending on PR spin initiatives is rising dramatically. It is hard for the public to decipher truth from spin. Objective news is fact based and essential to democracy. PR spin is advocacy based and is the enemy of democracy. But, because newspaper advertising revenue is declining, staff and salaries have decreased. Investigative reporting is all but dead due to the amount of time it requires. Instead of independent, original and credible reporting, the "news" is increasingly dependent on PR spinners and corporate press releases. It requires almost no time to create "news" using these sources and it's often used without fact checking. The PR firms have learned how to manipulate the media. As long as corporate profits created by multi-million dollar PR spin campaigns continue to rise, and traditional news sources are squeezed for funding, the threat to democracy remains. Support your local newspaper!
One last item in the Playbook worth mentioning here:
8. To reinforce the corporate point-of-view, conduct a bogus "survey". Slice and dice the data so you can lie with statistics. You can also use junk science "studies". Utilize paid "experts" to lend your coalition or spin initiative authority and credibility. PATH spent generously on former regulators and influential members of the business community to act as their "expert" shills.
Let's talk about the "seven common propaganda devices" made famous by the ill-fated Institute for Propaganda Analysis:
1. Glittering generalities - PATH used these to create positive emotions. The PATH project is "needed" to support your way of life! Heavy use of euphemisms to disguise negative effects, for example, "we will work with property owners to negotiate prices paid" when "we will take your property by eminent domain if you don't cooperate" was closer to the truth.
2. Testimonials - PATH utilized the business community in their advertisements to produce these.
3. Name-calling - NIMBY, need I say more?
4. Plain folks - PATH ads featured landowners, business people, and power company employees claiming, "we live in your communities." No, they don't.
5. Bandwagon - Everyone else supports PATH, and so should you!
6. Transfer - PATH's paid "experts" from industry and the regulatory community were used to transfer respect for these individuals to something undeserving of respect -- the PATH project! Transfer also discredits legitimate groups, spreads misinformation, distorts the truth, and instills fear.
7. Card stacking - PATH held their front group and PEAT "educational forums" only before private, invitation-only audiences so they could emphasize their point-of-view and repress the point-of-view of the opposition.
PATH also used fear (standard of living, blackouts, public health and safety, jobs, economy) to vilify the opposition as "self-centered NIMBYS concerned about their scenic views".
PATH's public relations contractors failed in their mission. There are many ways in which we countered their spin campaign, but obviously I'm not going to give away all my secrets here. Email me if you're fighting a transmission project and need to know more. Throwing money at a public relations contractor who can't perform isn't really "best" after all.
The real grassroots opposition made PATH's "just a statistic" victims come alive with names, faces, and personal stories. We're just like you! And until people like us demand corporate responsibility, corporate power will continue to rise until democracy becomes a faded memory... and propaganda wins.
The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.
-- Alex Carey, Australian social scientist who pioneered the study of corporate propaganda