03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tank Warfare: Alaska PR Initiative Targets Polar Bears

Public Relations is a funny business. And when I say "funny," I don't mean hilarious. I'm mean the same thing as your grandmother meant when she told you to "sit down and behave, no funny business."

Your grandmother was talking about something that used to be called "shenanigans."

Well, the PR business always seems to be up to a lot of shenanigans. An industry favorite is using sponsored "experts" (through perceivably independent think tanks, institutes, and conferences) to spin public debate.

The most infamous example of such deceptive spin has been demonstrated by the Tobacco Institute. For years, the organization clouded national debate on smoking with sponsored "research" (i.e. disinformation) aimed at disproving the connection between smoking and cancer... all under the guise of professional science.

Inside the Turret of Alaska's "Conference" Initiative

The latest entrant in the "sponsored-ideas" derby is the state of Alaska, which essentially announced a $1.5 million, 2-year program to kill polar bears... er... sorry, the stated goal of RFP No. 505 [PDF/subsription required] issued by Alaska's Legislative Affairs Agency is to:

... empanel select individuals for an Alaska conference on the Economic Impacts of Endangered Species Act (ESA) and climate change. The conference will address the effects of climate and environmental change on the state for the fiscal years [2009 and 2010].

They distinguish a "conference," and attribute it an innocuous and objective-sounding goal. But the conclusion is foregone: to prevent the Feds from using "climate change" to designate polar bears as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

How do we know? Because the RFP pretty much tells us:

First big clue, they are hiring a PR firm. Second, applicants have to submit a list of panelists they'd recommend for the "conference." If you don't think that's an attempt to stack the deck with friendlies, then I have a Bridge-to-Nowhere to sell you.

Third, the RFP clearly states that the legislature is "interested in discovering the best approaches to mitigating economic damage due to ESA listing," and that they're "working with other states to propose changes to the ESA."

So when PR firms are told: "Give a brief indication of how the panel debate on the subject would be framed," [emphasis added] you can bet they're not looking for a statement of objectivity.

AIG Think Tank Fiasco... Hacking Away at "Transparency"

On the one hand you can't fault Alaska for a lack of "transparency." They've made it clear what they're asking for and why: A hack conference to support their economic development agenda.

On the other hand, it makes you wonder why companies, PR people, and even governments bother with these kinds of transparently stilted initiatives in the first place. An editorial in the Anchorage Daily News sums it up:

The suspicion always is that the backers are looking for data to fit their foregone conclusions and will dismiss data that doesn't... Alaska's battle with the Endangered Species Act will be won or lost in court, on the merits. The state has a case. So do the feds. Having decided to go to court, the state should focus its efforts there, not on a public relations campaign likely to have credibility problems from the start.

A little over a year ago, AIG tried hosing the mud off CEO, Hank Greenberg's reputation with the same lame "think tank" strategy. (See story here.)

They hired a firm called eSapience to start two think tanks. The idea was to give Mr. Hanky independent-looking platforms from which to bloviate... to make him a "visible and highly credible voice about public issues that are completely unrelated to his legal situation." (via O'Dwyer's; subscription required)

The program was a failure. Not only did it put a dark cloud over Greenberg, it put an ethics cloud over eSapience principal Richard Schmalensee: how was it that the Dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management was moonlighting and charging up to $1,000 an hour for private advocacy work on a behalf of a failed CEO?

The backlash was ruinous, with eSapience suing for $2 million in unpaid bills and eventually shutting its doors. Though it appears eSapience principals Karen Webster and Richard Schmalensee are running new Boston-based strategy firm called "Market Platform Dynamics." (Their bios make no mention of AIG or eSapience.)

The $2 Million-Dollar Question: Why Do They Do It?

Why do they do it? To fleece their clients? No. They do it because they get paid millions of dollars to do it. And if it's not done in such a public and ham-fisted way... it works.

For the right price, and with the right connections and credentials, you can easily buy intellectual influence. eSapience claimed that it could:

Blunt and/or change the conversations that influential people, including public intellectuals, have about the set of issues we are asked. (via DailyKos; original reporting by The New Republic and the Washington Post has been moved or taken down.)

Back in 2007, Ken Silverstein wrote a stunning investigative article for Harper's investigating just such funny business. I quote from it here at length for two reasons:

  • 1) Because everybody should read it; it should be appended to tax forms and hung on the wall at the Post Office and mailed out with Social Security checks. It's that important to understanding how the influence game is played: who benefits and how.
  • 2) Because it might move you to subscribe to Harper's, or at least spend the ten bucks to buy this back issue (July 2007 - article: Their Men in Washington).

Caught Red Handed

The set up:

  • Silverstein asked: How is it that America has given so much money and aid to the most heinous regimes on Earth?
  • He went under cover to find out... he picked a suitably authoritarian and corrupt regime (Turkmenistan) and created a fictional private investment group of "natural gas" execs (ironic in itself) looking to build a pipeline there.
  • He approached influential Washington lobbying firms to see how they would handle this assignment: burnish Turkmenistan's reputation to help the pipeline deal along.

The Sting:

The PR firm most prominently features in the piece was APCO, and their approach was your typical bait-and-switch:

Tactic #1: Distract by changing the subject: "Energy security" would be the hook that blunts criticism over human rights and financial corruption, and they would sell it hard.

But it also included PR's dirty little secret... Think Tank marketing:

Tactic #2: Buy intellectual validation for your chosen message: They'd build a "coalition" of allies to talk to the media, specifically "think tank experts and academics." From Silverstein:

"One possibility, Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations, preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

"'Last week I contacted a number of colleagues at think tanks,' Downen went on. 'Some real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists.'

"The only cost would be refreshments and room rental--Schumacher joked that APCO would bake the cookies to save The Maldon Group a little money--and [it] could yield a tremendous payoff.

"'If we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional Record and get that printed and send it out,' Schumacher said. 'So you take one event and get it multiplied.'

"Another option, he explained, would be to pay Roll Call and The Economist to host a Turkmenistan event. It would be costlier than the think-tank route, perhaps around $25,000, but in compensation we would have tighter control over the proceedings, plus gain 'the imprimatur of a respected third party.'

"In order that the event not seem like paid advertising, the title for the event should be 'bigger than your theme,' Schumacher explained, even as it would be put together in a way 'that you get your message across.'"

[They suggested generic sounding name like "Energy Security" or "Caspian Basin Pipelines."]

And of course all of this would bubble up through the press onto your TV screens, and into your newspapers, and it would all be designed to look independent and objective - with "the imprimatur of a respected third party."

Honestly Speaking...

Public speaking is a valuable and worthwhile PR tactic.

I work with a healthcare consultant who is doing unique and truly groundbreaking stuff in patient safety and evidenced-based medicine. She should be speaking at conferences and participating in a wider discussion - not only so her work is recognized, but also so that it's objectively tested and validated by her peers.

That's not what this is about. And it's not even about the work of unabashedly partisan groups and think tanks that wear their bias with pride.

This kind of Think Tank marketing is about co-opting seemingly independent, unaffiliated sources to shill for a hidden agenda... presenting conclusions as if they were arrived at organically through debate rather than as what they are: pre-determined and put forward for the sole benefit of the sponsor.

This was astroturfing before there was a word for it.

Anybody remember the run up to the first Gulf War?... and the front group "Citizens for a free Kuwait" established by PR firm Hill & Knowlton to hold events like "National Free Kuwait Day," "National Prayer Day" (for Kuwait), and "National Student Information Day?"

Or the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq"? And now the "Campaign for a U.S.-Afghanistan Partnership"?

Believer Beware

The ironic thing about the APCO pitch was that sponsoring a "conference" with an independent outfit like The Economist gives them more control over the agenda, not less. That's what PR people take advantage of: trust. Their Trojan message is delivered in a trustworthy package, like intellectual malware.

It's hard to impress upon the reader just how deeply embedded in the PR playbook is this kind of insidious, co-opted message delivery. You, my friends, are swimming in it every day and you don't even know it. Even if you think you do, you don't. Not even close.

The worst thing about it, however, isn't even the dishonesty; it's the effluvium. After decades of marinating in it, the public has developed a kind of a hard-boiled, resentful skepticism. Their default position is believing that everything is cop-opted surreptitious propaganda. (And you'd be better off with that as your default position than believing its opposite.)

It's depressing. And the PR profession has a lot to answer for. You know the old saying "Caveat Emptor?" (Buyer Beware.)

Well our new hyper-cynical millennium might best be summed up with a new and very sad slogan: "Believer Beware."

That, dear reader, is one of the chief legacies of "professional PR." And it should give you a shiver, even in thawing Alaska.

(cross posted at

Note: Ken Silverstein blogs at Washington Babylon.