May/June 1999

No Spin Zone: The Story Behind Media Frenzies

Reviews of "Nail 'Em" by Eric Dezenhall and "Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry," by John Stauber, Sheldon Rampton

We live in a strange new world of media spin and crisis management, in which neither corporations nor social activists are totally trustworthy and the truth is frequently the biggest victim. Unfortunately, in this day and age when the daily noise level of information is very loud indeed, only hot-button campaigns rise above the clamor. It's a fact of life embraced by social activists of the left and right as well as by businesses that have learned that passive response to passionate protests can reduce a reputation to road kill.

What is one to do? If you're a company trying to protect itself against a media-hyped smear campaign or an activist group targeting some evil product of Corporate America, I heartily recommend two books that offer a motherlode of advice about how to evaluate and execute hard-edged public relations campaigns. These books from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum share an identical strength and weakness: they are both polemical which sharpens their insights while raising questions about their judgment.

Toxic Sludge is Good for You
We all know that companies exaggerate the truth. It's called advertising and most of us have a built-in "bull detector." More insidiously, however, businesses resort to far cleverer forms of opinion manipulation that deliver their message to an suspecting but easily duped public, like a Stealth bomber skirting below the radar warning screen.

That's the warning of "Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry," a populist critique of the public relations business by John Stauber, co-written with Sheldon Rampton.

Far from being a harmless corporate mouth piece, PR industry has grown into a sometimes secret lobby adept at side-stepping government policy, paid for by those wealthy enough to foot the bill. Stauber, who is lifelong activist and founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, and co-editor with Rampton of the quarterly "PR Watch," dissects the range of integrated services offered by today's communications firms, from product branding through marketing to government lobbying, from polling and dossier building to executive media coaching and crisis management. Throw in a little industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of public interest groups, and one begins to grasp the unmonitored power and potential for abuse.

The book includes a "who's who" of operatives with chapters on the nuclear lobby, spying, cause-related marketing, foreign lobbying and a variety of anti-environmental efforts. In one of the best chapters, on bio-engineering, the book blows the whistle on a Burson-Marsteller employee hired by Monsanto who posed as an ABC News researcher to pry privileged, damaging details on a report on bovine growth hormone from a consumer magazine.

Nail 'Em!
The irony of today's uncivil discourse on controversial issues is that activists themselves are driven at least as much as corporations by ego, self-promotion, and even profit, although discussing this publicly in "progressive" circles is tantamount to excommunication from the inner circle of the left. Eric Dezenhall has no such constraints. A former advisor to Ronald Reagan, Dezenhall, takes on the kind of corporate clients that dot the Southern California coastal corridor: entertainment- industry executives, defense contractors, and the same bio-engineering firms that activists regularly target.

Dezenhall's superb new book, "Nail 'Em! Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses" is the counterpoint to "Toxic Sludge." "If you have the motive, the money, and a modem, you can ruin anybody or anything," he says. Like "Toxic Sludge," "Nail 'Em" is an exposť, but of the excesses of those organizations, professional protestors, and dilettantes who the media invariably grant a pretext of morality. For instance, he takes on what he calls, in typical understatement, "scare du jour" experts like Jeremy Rifkin, the anti-genetic engineering crusader and founder of the Foundation for Economic Trends, which is little more than a Rifkin-promotion vehicle. Rifkin made a name for himself by feeding public fears of complex technologies, like genetic engineering, orchestrating expertly timed attacks on farmer's use of bovine growth hormone and the development of gene-spliced tomatoes.

Living by the Sword
While Stauber is viewed by the PR industry as the Anti-Christ, Dezenhall, from the flip slide of the ideological coin, might be his tactical twin. Both detest "spin," the current end-all and be-all of public relations. Stauber is convinced that corporate spin dupes the public while Dezenhall believes that if corporations embrace the tactic, they perpetuate the myth that media massaging actually works in managing real-life crises. Both suspect that spinmeisters mostly just spin themselves.

Both books actually create the same straw man ≠ journalists -- and urge similar, take-no-prisoners retaliatory techniques against media misinformation. By Dezenhall's account, the media is susceptible to "knee-jerk support for a colorful, fame-seeking, pop-culture exploiting allegationist" like Rifkin. Stauber makes a convincing case that the line between the media and corporations, never distinct to begin with, is now hopelessly blurred because of the rapacious appetite for "product" (once called "news") and the competitive demands of high ratings and large circulation.

As for what to do when faced with a crisis, both reject the niceties of moderation for the Biblical advice of an eye for an eye. For liberal activists that means "scare the hell out of people," based on their belief that grassroots activism is the only hope prevailing in today's commercial marketplace of ideas.

" 'Happy PR' is fine for some things," says Dezenhall, like store openings and selling products. But soft PR in an attack is like spraying perfume on a mugger: He'll smell nice but mug you anyway. If you live by the sword, you may well die by the sword; but if you live by the olive branch, you can still die by the sword. When they come gunning for you, you have to shoot back with all the ammunition available." If truth is sometimes war, then these two books will be indispensable additions to your bookshelf.