This article was first published as "Flack Attack" in PR Watch, Volume 2, No. 4, Fourth Quarter 1995. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.
The Hazel O'Leary flap prompted another round of grumbling in the PR industry about the "bad rap" that the industry keeps getting.
Minneapolis PR pro Paul Maccabbee penned a complaint about what he called a "volcanic explosion of media lava," arguing that "O'Leary was wise to investigate how to get her department's message out" so that "news reporters can be held accountable for past stories. . . . A government agency without a PR staff is an agency that has no voice in the newsroom, no finger on the pulse of its constituency."
The industry trade newsletter, Inside PR, weighed in with an editorial that took a passing swipe at PR Watch, arguing that the attack on O'Leary is "no different in nature from . . . critics like John Stauber, who see cynical and reprehensible manipulation in the most innocent, common sense communications strategy."
In fact, the O'Leary episode shows that a lot of people share our dim view of the PR industry, and we find it remarkable that this fact is so slow to penetrate the consciousness of an industry that brags incessantly about its communications skills.
Inside PR's defense of DOE's approach to communications will get little support from Professor Craig Walton, who directs the Institute for Ethics and Policy Studies at the University of Nevada--Las Vegas. Walton is currently writing a book about DOE's attempt to implement a law passed by Congress in 1987 that would force the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada to become the country's sole repository for high-level nuclear waste.
Known locally as the "Screw Nevada Bill," the law is opposed by over 70% of Nevadans. "We were selected to be the victim," Walton said. "It's a grisly lifeboat ethic. . . . You have to throw somebody overboard, and Nevada was selected to be it because we were outnumbered."
To overcome local resistance, the nuclear power industry has funded a multi-million-dollar PR blitz, code-named the "Nevada Initiative." Walton says the industry and DOE have "called in larger and larger advertising budgets, PR gimmicks such as bus tours and a nuclear boutique near our largest mall, and public meetings where they prepare cutaway models, charts, handouts and toy trains, bring engineers and scientists, and condescendingly characterize citizen distrust as springing from lack of scientific understanding. . . . Public participation has degenerated to cynicism in southern Nevada, precisely because of such manipulation of what the DOE sees as emotional but clueless consumers of their policy."
Inside PR would probably argue that DOE's approach is simply an "innocent, common sense communications strategy." The problem is that it is a strategy for one-way communication--a propaganda model aimed at compelling obedience rather than at discovering and honoring the wishes of its "target population."
"PR has become a corporate substitute for honesty and public dialogue, with ethical and political implications that reach far beyond the moral meltdown at Yucca Mountain," Walton says. "If you pay attention, you see a host of indicators, ranging from opinion polls to the growth of militias, indicating that the whole legitimacy of the United States may be coming undone. There was a time when the United States was widely perceived to be governing by the consent of the governed. That's gone now. Whole segments of the population have written off the notion that the government represents the people. If you say that, they just laugh in your face. And if you look at the way the spin doctors have manipulated and mishandled the Yucca Mountain debate, you understand why people feel this way."