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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Sludge and Greenwash

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with writer John Stauber. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton are co-authors of the new book Toxic Sludge is Good For You. The book documents a number of incidents where corporations, and even the U.S. government, have attempted to influence public perceptions through successful public relations campaigns to make them appear environmentally friendly — something Stauber refers to as Greenwashing.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ever since industry has come under fire for causing environmental damage, it has also spent a lot of money trying to persuade the public that it's making progress. And in truth, many companies have become more careful of how they use natural resources and therefore are worthy of commendation. But more of them are claiming good works than deserve credit, according to John Stauber, a critic of the public relations industry. Mr. Stauber claims some companies spend millions of dollars greenwashing their images and misleading the public about their handling of the environment.

John Stauber is the publisher of PR Watch, and with coauthor Sheldon Rampton of a new book called Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. Big time corporate PR, Mr. Stauber says, is not good for our values or politics.

STAUBER: The power of PR corrupts our democracy. The idea in a democracy is that people educate themselves, debate, and determine issues of public policy either directly or for, through their elected representatives. What the PR Industry does is it allows major corporations to dominate politics and public policy, so it undermines the most fundamental principle of democracy, which is letting the people debate and decide public policy.

CURWOOD: Okay, I want to be sure I understand your case here, though. Are you saying that companies, rich companies, shouldn't have the right to hire professionals, to put them in the best possible light?

STAUBER: Companies certainly have the right to put forth their message. We're not really talking about rights here. Rights adhere to individuals in a democracy. The problem to a very large extent is money. Because of the massive amount of capital and access to the media that these companies have, they're able to project a false image of what their true environmental record is, for instance. We can look at a company like Dow Chemical. Dow had a terrible public image coming out of the 60s because it was identified with toxins like Agent Orange and weapons like napalm, so they began spending a lot of money on PR, and advocacy advertising, and they have successfully changed their image according to surveys of public opinion. Yet in reality, Dow still remains a very major polluter, so what I would recommend is just a fundamental buyer beware attitude towards how corporations operate.

CURWOOD: Tell me now, what's the difference between advertising and public relations?

STAUBER: Advertising is right in your face. When you're watching the evening news and they break to a commercial and you see an ad, you know that that's a company trying to sell you a product or sell you an idea. Public relations is much less visible. In fact, there's an axiom that public relations works best when it is invisible. And it's now at least a $10 billion a year trans-national industry made up of huge firms like Hill and Knowlton, Burston Marstellar, Katchum, that are available to major corporations, governments and the wealthy, to control public opinion and public policy.

CURWOOD: Are there examples of honest corporate communications out there?

STAUBER: Sure there are. There are 150,000 public relations practitioners in the US, and many of them, perhaps most of them, on a day-to-day basis, are conducting fairly benign education campaigns, and some of what the public relations practitioners do is important.

CURWOOD: Tell me, John Stauber, what's the difference between a company which is honestly responsive to community concerns and one which is greenwashing? I mean, how can a citizen tell?

STAUBER: It's not often easy to tell because again, public relations works best when it is invisible. And I think what the public has to do is remember what the business community knows, which is that every company is in business for one reason only, and that's to increase the profits at the bottom line. And it's very, very difficult for any company to maintain a good socially responsible and environmentally responsible record if those activities seem to detract from its bottom line.

CURWOOD: What changes to do you want in the public relations industry? How would you change it to make it, in your view, more honest and more appropriate for democracy?

STAUBER: The public relations industry is very difficult to reform, because it's essentially a propaganda industry. And the bottom line for me is that we have to develop a citizenry that's aware and vigilant, and somebody's always going to be trying to propagandize that citizenry.

CURWOOD: Do you think there should be rules governing the public relations industry?

STAUBER: There could be laws that require much better labeling of what's clearly persuasive propaganda. For instance, TV spots representing an issue brought to you by some coalition, it would be nice if those TV spots were required to say this was paid for by the insurance industry or the chemical industry or a specific company. There's no law requiring that right now, and it's very confusing.

CURWOOD: John Stauber is publisher of the newsletter PR Watch and coauthor, with Sheldon Rampton, of the new book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry. Thanks for joining us.

STAUBER: Thank you, Steve, it's been a pleasure.

CURWOOD: And I just can't resist asking you, is this interview good PR for your book?

STAUBER: (Laughs) Well that's up to how you edit it.

CURWOOD: (Laughs)



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