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Thursday, January 04, 2007

ExxonMobil's Climate Change PR Campaign or 'How to Convince People You're Not Killing Them'

The term 'public relations' often means lying as a science. You begin a spin campaign, track your progress with focus groups and public opinion surveys, adjust your spin as new facts come to light, and generally treat your spin job as a marketing campaign. Public opinion is, after all, the marketplace of ideas.

The problem with corporate PR campaigns is that they're often about something that effects -- or even ends -- peoples lives. They've been used to turn links between smoking and cancer into controversial links between smoking and cancer and to cast links between asbestos and cancer as controversial links between asbestos and cancer. The purpose of a PR attack on the truth is to spread doubt. As long as there's doubt over whether or not a product causes harm, potentially expensive problems can continue to be swept under the rug and the eventual lawsuits filed by the sick, the dying, and the families of the dead can be put off for one more quarter. Everything from airbags to pharmaceuticals to water pollution has been spun this way. As long as there is doubt, it's still an open market.

That's what's happening with global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that -- surprise, surprise -- ExxonMobil's been on a PR campaign to cast doubt over the human impact on global climate change since 1998.

WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 3–A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists offers the most comprehensive documentation to date of how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry's disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

"ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer," said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' Director of Strategy & Policy. "A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years."

Not only are they doing the same sort of thing big tobacco did before them, they're using many of the same 'scientists'. The idea is to take a minority opinion of skeptics and make it seem as if there's a split in the scientific community -- think of 'intelligent design' v. evolution.

Let's take a look at how this works.

As UCS reports, ExxonMobil began its campaign back in 1998. At that time, an internal memo (PDF) was leaked that showed ExxonMobil's strategy, goals, and plans for tracking its spin campaign on global warming. In the document, Subject: Draft Global Climate Science Communications Plan, it's all spelled out -- including this 'profit above people' admission in the opening statement:

[F]rom the political viewpoint, it is difficult for the United States to oppose the treaty solely on economic grounds, valid as the economic issues are. It makes it too easy for others to portray the United States as putting its own lifestyle above the greater concerns of mankind. This argument, in turn, forces our negotiators to make concessions that have not been well thought through, and in the end may do far more harm than good. This is the process that unfolded at Kyoto and is very likely to be repeated in Buenos Aires in November 1998.

In other words, it's hard to put profit over people without seeming evil -- mostly because it is evil. So you cast doubt over whether or not you're causing people harm. The Kyoto agreement was the accord that Clinton signed on to. Like all treaties, it covered a set period of time, then expired. Once the treaty had expired, Bush refused to sign the next phase, citing 'economic harm' to the United States. This despite Bush's campaign promise to address CO2 emissions -- the first of Bush's many lies.

As I said, a PR campaign is like a marketing campaign -- you test public opinion, then continue to test as the campaign unfolds.

Progress will be measured toward the goal. A measurement of the public's perspective on climate science will be taken before the plan is launched, and the same measurement will be taken at one or more as-yet-to-be-determine intervals as the plan is implemented.

A little sunny optimism, there. They began this in 1998 and it's pretty safe to assume they're continuing this market research to this day. There's probably a study in the field as we speak.

The document tells us how to measure success:

Victory Will Be Achieved When:

-- Average citizens "understand" (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of "conventional wisdom"

-- Media "understands" (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science

-- Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current "conventional wisdom"

-- Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy

-- Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality

"Media coverage reflects balance" is happening now. Despite the fact that global climate change is supported by the vast majority of climate scientists, they've managed to gin up enough 'controversy' to get industry shills -- who often aren't climate scientists -- inserted into panel discussions and to get journalists to tell 'both sides of the story' in print.

This is ridiculous. There's 'balance' and there's helping to spread a lie. Again, think 'intelligent design' v. evolution. First, you talk to a scientist, then to an 'expert' who claims it was all magic. These ideas don't deserve to be given the same weight. Do you find a flat earther every time there's a shuttle launch or a Holocaust denier every time you run a special on WWII?

There are two sides to every story, sure. But on most stories involving established fact, there are experts respected in their fields on one side and ridiculous boobs on the other. You'll never hear Wolf Blitzer say (or at least I hope you won't), "The theory that the Earth orbits the sun remains controversial." We don't need both sides of every story.

When do you stop this sort of spin campaign? Like big tobacco and asbestos, you stop when you are stopped. It's clear that ExxonMobil doesn't plan to stop their campaign -- ever. Emphasis mine:

Unless "climate change" becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts...

How do you do this thing? First, you create the appearance of a growing number of skeptics.

Identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach. These will be individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate. Rather, this team consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who are already vocal.

I love that first sentence. If you 'recruit and train' these guys, then by what insane definition are they 'independent scientists?' You see the idea though; generate headlines like "More Scientists Show Rising Skepticism."

Continuing on, I thought this tactic was fun:

Produce, distribute a steady stream of climate science information via facsimile and e-mail to science writes around the country.

A spam campaign -- I'm sure these writers appreciated that.

And this one was a sure bet (emphasis mine):

Convince one of the major news national TV journalists (e.g., John Stossel) to produce a report examining the scientific underpinnings of the Kyoto Treaty.

Stossel's a major corporate stooge. He's been a global warming skeptic since he pulled the orders to become one off the fax.

Basically, you do all this and you poll. Then you adjust and poll. money is no object. The document is riddled with costs.

National Media Program Budget -- $600,000 plus paid advertising

Global Climate Science Data Center Budget -- $5,000,000 (spread over two years)

National Direct Outreach Program Budget -- $300,000

Total Funds Required to Implement Program through November 1998 -- $2,000,000 (a significant portion of funding for the GCSDC will be deferred until 1999 and beyond)

That this is ongoing is proven by the number UCS gives us in their report -- $16 million. Of course, that's chump change, the company made more that ten billion in profits last year.

Gotta keep that gravy train rollin'. People have killed for one helluva lot less. Where that kind of money is involved, some people will do anything.


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