Erasing the Writing on the Wall: Timberlands Censors Its Critics

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This article was first published as "Erasing the Writing on the Wall: Timberlands Censors Its Critics", PR Watch, volume 7, number 1, First Quarter 2000. The original article was authored by Nicky Hager and Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

A little bit of graffiti

Shandwick's efforts to stifle public expressions of opposition to rainforest logging knew no limits. In June 1997, Shandwick's Rob McGregor worried that anti-Timberlands graffiti was flourishing in Wellington. Large walls displayed messages such as "Timberlands--Rainforest Vandals."

"What is your policy regarding this type of graffiti?" McGregor asked in a memo to Timberlands. "We could arrange to have them removed by waterblasting if necessary," he added helpfully.

Soon Timberlands and Shandwick were hiring contractors to paint over all graffiti concerning Timberlands or native logging. In September 1997, Shandwick extended this "public relations" work to include the elimination of posters and leaflets. Members of Native Forest Action (NFA) found that their posters, stuck to lamp-posts around the city, were being painted over with thick khaki-coloured paint - exactly the same paint being used at that time to cover graffiti messages.

In a report on the "graffiti erasure campaign," Shandwick acknowledged that the public was not against the graffiti--"the population is generally tolerant and accepting"--but it was adversely affecting one of Timberlands' target audiences, senior politicians. "Annoyance with the campaign," Shandwick wrote, "is largely confined to some Ministers/the Prime Minister and reportedly some parts of the Wellington City Council."

"The current erasure response by the company is discreet and effective," Shandwick wrote, pleased that "there is no obvious company involvement." But every time graffiti was removed, it reappeared. "NFA are persistent. . . . This has resulted in the company's annoyance growing as the cost of removal grows," noted one memo. Minutes of the weekly PR teleconference meetings between Timberlands and Shandwick frequently included a "graffiti report," with updates such as "Graffiti en route to Wellington Airport has been taken care of."

Finally Shandwick dreamt up a "final solution" to the graffiti problem. The most frequent source of irritation was a large concrete wall in Wellington, strategically located along the route used by politicians to travel between Parliament and the airport. In December 1997, Shandwick noticed a small article in a newspaper proposing a mural on the wall and spied an opportunity to stifle their troublesome critics once and for all. Timberlands covertly contributed $2,500 for design and painting of a native forest mural, thus obliterating the space loved by graffitists and loathed by the Prime Minister.

Civics Education, Shandwick Style

In May 1997, approximately 100 schoolchildren attended a conservation rally at the New Zealand Parliament calling for an end to West Coast logging. In the weeks leading up to the rally, their teachers and school principals had made a class project of forest conservation, with visiting speakers on ecology and most of the children individually making and painting large cut-out birds and other native animals. At Parliament they were met by the Minister of Conservation in a friendly and low-key event.

Timberlands was incensed by this small protest, and Shandwick launched a private investigation aimed at identifying the schools involved. They traced the students to two schools in particular, and Shandwick's Rob McGregor drafted a letter for Timberlands to send to the principals. "We understand that children from your school may have recently taken part in a presentation outside Parliament opposing our company's operations," it began. After stating the company's usual arguments in defense of its logging, the letter went on to warn, "We consider our reputation besmirched by what would appear to be an ill-considered action that disregarded the facts of the matter and co-opted children for political gain. We must advise that, in the event of any further action of this nature, we will seek legal redress." The final version of the letter, which was sent two days later, omitted the legal threat, but Timberlands still challenged the principals about their pupils being "involved in an action based on misinformation, designed to advance a 'political' agenda." The principals who received the letter were surprised and annoyed that the company would track them down and criticize them over such a minor event. They had received signed permission from parents for each child wanting to take part and had talked the issue through with the pupils to make sure they understood what they were doing.

The company's own political agenda was evident from a fax that McGregor sent to Timberlands accompanying the final draft of the letter. "Could you please send me copies of the letters when you have sent them," he wrote, "and I'll fax a copy to Cath Ingram in [Prime Minister Jenny Shipley's] office." The company wanted to show Shipley that it had dealt with the criticism.

Not content with letters of complaint to principals, two weeks later Klaus Sorensen of Shandwick sent Timberlands a seven-page strategy plan for getting the company's message to "year seven and eight schoolchildren." Following the rally, he explained, Shandwick felt that "a more formalised approach" was needed to deal with "environmental attacks" of this nature. The PR firm spent the next year developing a school resource kit and website resources to be made available to every school in the country for use in science curriculums.

In contrast to the small school conservation rally, which had been organised openly and with parental permission, Shandwick believed that Timberlands should downplay its role in the school PR kit and make it appear, as much as possible, to be a legitimate part of the school curriculum. "An outstanding issue relating to the School Resource Kit is how it is branded, the prominence given to Timberlands," noted on internal document.

Shandwick knew the company would not be popular with school students and wanted as little sign as possible that it had provided the educational materials. "To ensure uptake of the resource and to enhance its credibility," Shandwick advised, "we recommend the Timberlands branding be discreet rather than prominent."

Vacuuming Dirt from Around the Globe

Following publication of Secrets and Lies, Shandwick attempted to deny the international scope of its anti-environmental lobbying. "We have never sought any help or information or instructions from Shandwick's overseas as far as Timberlands is concerned," Sorenson said.

The company's leaked documents, however, show that Shandwick turned to its international network for help as it attempted to cut off Native Forest Action's sources of funding. This effort centered on the Body Shop cosmetics company, which Timberlands mistakenly believed was a major funder of the NFA campaign. The plan, devised and executed by Shandwick staff, was to find embarrassing information about the Body Shop's environmental record and about company owner Anita Roddick and use this to pressure the company into abandoning the anti-native forest logging campaign.

The "Body Shop initiative" began in mid-1997 when the Body Shop displayed a Native Forest Action petition calling for an end to West Coast native forest logging and helped advertise a rally at Parliament. Shandwick suggested the Body Shop's support for NFA be listed on the agenda of their weekly PR telephone conference. "Franchise owners of Body Shop are pro-active in green movement. Need to develop a campaign targeting them," the minutes said. Shandwick's Klaus Sorensen was charged with developing the campaign.

Shandwick sent requests to consultants in its overseas offices looking for dirt on the Body Shop. "One of our clients in New Zealand, a State Owned forestry company, is having some trouble with misinformation being distributed, mainly originating from the Body Shop," the request stated before getting directly to the point: "Could you please fax us any information you can locate on Body Shop/Anita Roddick, especially any negative publicity on environmental issues?"

The London office sent two reports on the Body Shop's international financial performance. "Anita Roddick has never had a particularly good relationship with the City partly because she is prone to campaigning against companies she considers not as ethical as the Body Shop claims to be," stated a cover note from Shandwick-London's Neil Huband.

The New York office noted that it had battled the Body Shop previously on behalf of the Shell Oil company, when it came under criticism for its role in the Nigerian government's 1995 execution of playwright and indigenous activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Daphne Luchtenberg of Shandwick-New York alluded to "dealings and similar wranglings with The Body Shop over their campaign against Shell and Nigeria--Ken Sarawiwo [sic]--do you remember?" She offered help for Timberlands from American Shandwick staff who had assisted in the Shell contract. "Colin Byrne advised them on that and he would be good to include in the conference call," she suggested. "Colin B also has a freelance consultant who is very hot on European environment issues and if the timing is right he might be involved."

Shandwick also dug into the financial affairs of Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee, the owner of Body Shop's New Zealand franchise. In October 1997, it reported finding some useful dirt on her husband Michael. "NFA: Body Shop question has been addressed and action expected over the next week," stated the meeting minutes.

The scoop on Michael Ogilvie-Lee was that he owned part of a chain of shops called Art For Art's Sake which, in a small proportion of its picture frames, used rimu wood sourced from Timberlands. In August 1997, Sorensen pitched this tidbit to journalists from his old stamping ground, the National Business Review. When they failed to take the bait, he phoned a journalist with the Independent newspaper, proposing she do a story showing up the Body Shop's supposed hypocrisy.

"Body Shop ongoing--publication of article anticipated," Sorensen reported to Timberlands. After the article appeared, he suggested that Timberlands should extend "an invitation . . . to Body Shop" for the purpose of winning the company over to its view in favor of "sustainable" rainforest logging.

It was an attack that backfired. Michael Ogilvie-Lee responded to the discovery that his shop was using Timberlands rimu by reforming his company's policy. As a result, the story that eventually ran in the Independent, headlined "Body Shop backs tree huggers," reported that Ogilvie-Lee "had now persuaded the Art For Art's Sake chain to boycott Timberlands rimu, and [was] urging fellow traders to do the same."

Rather than cutting off funding for Native Forest Action, Timberlands' heavy-handed tactics angered Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee so much that in late 1998 she phoned NFA to offer the group a five-figure donation--far more than she had ever given before. The company's erroneous belief that the Body Shop was a major funder of NFA had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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