By Erin Quinn
Editor’s note: This story is one in a continuing series on Washington, D.C.’s misinformation industry. The series seeks to illuminate the sometimes-misleading methods used by special interest groups to gain support for their agendas from government and average Americans.
Americans for Common Cents was created in 1990 to “inform and educate policymakers, consumers, and the media about the penny’s economic, cultural and historical significance.”
Members sought to rally support behind the penny in response to those who would prefer that it be done away with. Its “executive director,” Mark Weller, spoke before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology in 2012.
He described the group as “broad-based and comprised of, and endorsed by, many of the nation’s leading coin and numismatic organizations, charitable organizations … and companies involved in the manufacturing and transport of the penny.”
But his written statement did not mention that Weller is actually a lobbyist and head of strategic communications for Dentons, a law firm representing the interests of zinc producer Jarden Zinc Products, a major provider of coin blanks that are made into currency.
In addition, over the years the New York Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Times and CNN have failed to mention American for Common Cents’ industry connection. In a press release, claiming widespread support for saving the penny, the group was mute regarding the conflict.
Weller only disclosed Jarden as a sponsor of ACC on a separate truth in testimony disclosure form, submitted to the Committee on Financial Services, which listed the zinc producer as a recipient of federal contracts.
Americans for Common Cents is not a registered nonprofit, nor is it a business entity in Washington, D.C. In fact, it really only exists on paper and in cyberspace. ACC has the classic characteristics of a “front group,” a phantom organization backed by business, but with no visible ties to the business.
Weller denies ACC is a front group, and says he has been “very upfront that ACC has a major sponsor in Jarden Zinc Products.” He said he disclosed to the committee that Jarden is the primary sponsor, though there’s no mention in his written statement.
Jarden Zinc Products spent $1.5 million from 2006 through the first quarter of 2014 lobbying on such things as “issues related to the one-cent coin” and represented by Weller when he worked at B&D Consulting and, more recently, Dentons.
These days, Washington reporters and policymakers can barely fire up their email without being besieged by press releases from front groups and fake grassroots organizations.
While data on the proliferation of such organizations is hard to come by, Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, says their numbers are “without a doubt” increasing, thanks at least in part to the ease of setting up a campaign entirely on the Internet.
“Nowadays any corporation or PR firm with just a few hours can use a proxy server to register a website and buy stock images,” she said.
Thanks to the Internet, a poll-tested, cleverly named group with some “fancy graphics” can embark on a drive to influence public opinion, even if it’s the creation of a public relations company, Graves said.
Front groups, also known as "astroturfing" organizations, are usually set up to resemble unbiased, third-party grassroots organizations when in reality they are working to further the position of the PR firm’s client.
The rise in cyber front groups coincides with the increase in digital media in the $11 billion global public relations industry. Digital growth in the industry is rivaled only by new business in emerging markets, according to the World PR Report.
“The digital revolution has had a transformative effect on the PR profession,” said Joe Cohen, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America and senior vice president for PR firm MWW.
Big public relations firms all now offer social media strategy, mobile content creation, website design, search engine optimization, cultivation of online communities, digital grassroots strategy and content marketing as part of their services.
There are public forums online. Communication is more interactive and everything happens much faster. But this new environment brings challenges when it comes to ethical standards.
“A lot of the rules are still being set and that really has implications,” Cohen said.
New tech, old ideas
But deceptive PR tactics are hardly a new trend.
They can be traced at least as far back as Edward Bernays, a founder of the industry who created front groups to support smoking habits in the 1920s. The tobacco industry’s PR campaigns later perfected modern deception.
The basic concept hasn’t changed much either. The idea is to create an allegedly unbiased “third party” ally to lend credibility to a client’s cause.
On the issue of climate change, for example, Graves says, while the scientific consensus is that man-made greenhouse gases are heating up the Earth, there are a host of think tanks and social-welfare nonprofits, funded by the fossil fuel industry, acting as front groups to cast doubt on that contention.
These sorts of tactics can actually be more effective than advertising because they hide the source of information or are presented as the work of an unbiased expert. And the stakes are enormous.
“There are some really important policy issues that are being decided that affect our future in substantial ways, and there are very narrow, very rich interests that want to game the system,” said Graves.
Not all digital campaigns are misleading. But there’s no doubt there is tremendous growth in the industry, and with it comes a greater potential for abuse.
“Audiences have no context for what they’re hearing,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Sloan also believes the number of front groups has been increasing.
Additionally, messages in digital media versus traditional public relations or advertising can become more “more aggressive” and “less truthful” since sponsors are unnamed, she said. Front groups often express points of view that corporations would not communicate under their own name, she added.
PRSA opposes tactic
While any new form of communication opens up the possibility for ethical transgressions, anonymous websites and social media make deception easier, said George Johnson, chairman of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.
“As a new form of communication, a new set of media, obviously it creates both new opportunities and new problems,” Johnson said.
The PRSA’s Code of Ethics includes an entire section dedicated to disclosure of information. The code condemns the use of front groups, lies by omission, failure to correct inaccurate material and fake grassroots campaigns.
But some public relations practitioners are not PRSA members and therefore do not necessarily subscribe to the code. And not all people behind deceptive tactics are public relations professionals.
The code states that members shall “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” that they will “disclose financial interest … in a client’s organization” and “avoid deceptive practices.”
Trade associations are often the sponsors of grassroots groups that are actually funded by industry.
For example, advertisements placed by the “Coalition for Medicare Choices” on buses, in subway trains and on Washington TV stations warn that seniors will face higher costs, fewer benefits and a loss of provider choice if Congress and the Obama administration don't take action to keep planned rate cuts from going into effect.
So who is this alleged grassroots group?
The Coalition’s address is 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 500, in Washington, D.C. — the same address as America's Health Insurance Plans, a well-funded, influential lobbying and PR outfit, as Center for Public Integrity columnist Wendell Potter pointed out in January.
The so-called coalition’s online campaign says its goal is “preserving and strengthening the high quality coverage options that Medicare Advantage plans provide,” and features pictures of smiling senior citizens, but its AHIP connection is not acknowledged. An AHIP spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
Some groups are utterly anonymous. The Center has reported on a website operated by an organization — or something — called StoptheChoke.
The site uses inflammatory language, such as in the banner on its homepage that reads, “President Obama’s hit list — taking away your guns, closing down charities and destroying the free market.”
The name is a reference to the government’s Operation Choke Point, which seeks to clamp down on payday lenders and other much-criticized industries by going after banks that provide them credit. Stopthechoke.com has no “about us” section and no contact information.
Its Twitter feed has a more visible supporter — the Institute for Liberty. The nonprofit and its executive director Andrew Langer link to similar commentaries and the two groups retweet one another.
Langer said he has no financial relationship with StoptheChoke and does not sponsor the content on the website.
StoptheChoke’s website has been linked to Harris Media LLC, through unique coding in the website, as the Center reported earlier this year, though the connection is unconfirmed. Calls to the firm were not returned.
Weller of Americans for Common Cents says that it is “important to say from the get-go, ‘This is who we are, who we are made up of and who our supporters are.’ ”
He said that while Jarden Zinc Products is its major member and funder, there is support from charities and coin collecting groups. He said the group has been transparent about revealing members.
That transparency doesn’t extend to its website, however, which fails to note the zinc industry connection. In addition, the Washington, D.C., address for Americans for Common Cents is the Dentons law firm. And the phone number listed for contacting the group is not in service.
Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity