Introduction to the British edition
by Robert Newman
Public affairs companies like to stay out of the public eye. They have to be invisible: their propaganda can’t work if you see it coming. This makes them, like the WTO or World Bank/IMF, extremely vulnerable to The Dracula Effect: expose them to daylight and they shrivel up and die … Except, unlike the WTO, World Bank or IMF, these firms are never exposed, never mentioned. Instead they’re granted near-total obscurity even as their stories razzle-dazzle the airwaves. Yes, there’s plenty of talk about spin, but only Whitehall spin. The debate is strictly confined to the industry’s small public-sector fringe.
The private propaganda industry, meanwhile, demands discreet handling by the news media. Demands it and gets it. How come? What’s that all about? What’s going on there?
On one level it’s just that newsrooms are very dependent on corporate propaganda including “free” video footage as well as more traditional press releases. It’s human nature always to deny to ourselves the extent of our shameful little dependencies. Especially if you want to keep getting your news-licks for free.
Newsrooms tell all their little stories in the light of one big story. That is, they take their cues from a grand narrative handed down by the rich and powerful. One such is that, as Prime Minister Blair once said, “the ideological battles are over” and corporate-led globalization “unstoppable”. But if that’s the case then why the need for all the private propaganda?
Another reason, then, why it’s never mentioned is because the industry’s very existence challenges the most sacred creed of our time: What Is Good For Big Business Is Good For The People. This is the central tenet of the “free trade uber alles” doctrine which currently has the whole world under lockdown. Those who seek to stay in the fold of the happy ideology – in the hope of one day presenting University Challenge, perhaps -had better not look at, say, Burson-Marsteller’s client-list.
Burson-Marsteller, one of the bigger crisis-management PR firms, were working with the Argentinian junta in the 1970s to touch up that country’s international image. And so, in his own way, was military dictator General Videla, as he busily airbrushed 35,000 unsightly activists from the national picture.
Burson-Marsteller worked for Union Carbide after its Bhopal pesticide plant leaked 40 tonnes of toxic gas instantly killing 2000 people. (It helps if you hum “Sympathy For The Devil” through this paragraph . . .) They covered for Exxon after Exxon Valdez, and helped save the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island. When, in 1992, BP was found pouring methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) into Hull’s coastal waters, Burson-Marsteller smoothed those troubled waters. (It remains unclear, however, whether the phrase “BP -Beyond Petroleum” was coined at this time, perhaps as a way of reflecting the move into methyl-ethyl-ketone.) A few years later, Burson-Marsteller began work for the Indonesian dictator Suharto, before tours of duty with BNFL and squeaky-clean Shell.
Now, by the twisted fundamentalist logic of New “triple-bottom-line” Labour, if Burson-Marsteller actions were good for Burson-Marsteller profits, then they must, by necessity, have been a good result for the people of Argentina and East Timor, for Alaskan fishing communities, and for the people of Bhopal, where, following Burson Marsteller’s work, the Indian Supreme Court dropped all charges against Union Carbide.