Help:How to research front groups

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How to research front groups is a research guide. See the other research guides

This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

The Center for Media and Democracy, the publisher of SourceWatch, has produced several books about the public relations industry that can be helpful research sources, in particular Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry and Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future. This web site also contains "search-able" archives of PR Watch, daily news items dating back several years in our Spin of the Day section, and a public discussion forum.

PR Trade press and PR/Lobbying Guidebooks

The PR trade press is another good source for information. The web site of O'Dwyer's PR Daily includes online databases that can be searched to find out which PR firms are working for a particular company. These are available to those who take out a subscription which range from $10 for site access for one week through to $295 for a full year subscription.

Jack O'Dwyer also publishes several print newsletters that report on the public relations industry, as well as a monthly magazine. Given the public relations industry's own proclivity for spin and obfuscation, you may be inclined to wonder whether the PR trade press is any better, but O'Dwyer's often produces solid, hard-hitting journalism that you won't find anywhere else.

Back issues of O'Dwyer's print publications are also archived in the NEXIS database, a for-pay service that provides searchable, full-text access to news stories. If you have access to NEXIS, one trick that we use sometimes when searching for information about the PR angle of a story is to do a Boolean search for "O'Dwyer" AND whatever other search term we're looking for. For example, a search for "O'Dwyer" and "biotechnology" turns up some interesting hits related to PR campaigns on behalf of the biotech industry.

O'Dwyer's also publishes O'Dwyer's Directory of Public Relations Firms, which is updated annually.

A more comprehensive directory of Washington lobbyists, consultants and PR firms is available from Washington Representatives, published by Columbia Books. The O'Dwyer's directory lists fewer firms than Washington Representatives, but contains more detailed information about the firms that it does list. Both directories are indexed according to the name of the PR firm and the name of its clients. Washington Representatives also is available as an online searchable database at www.lobbyists.info. A year subscription costs $410. There is also a free 5-day trial subscription.

  • Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 the U.S. Attorney General's Department requires individuals and lobbying/PR and other companies representing foreign governments to report on the nature of their work and fees paid. The latest report available at http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fara/ covers the 6 months ending December 31, 2002.

For other internet information resources about the PR industry, see our PR Recommended Links.

In addition to searches for specific companies and their PR firms, you can broaden your inquiry somewhat by finding out what trade associations and coalitions the companies belong to, e.g., the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Responsible Care, etc. Often PR initiatives for polluting industries are handled by their trade associations rather than by the companies directly. This gives the individual companies a layer of plausible deniability while enabling the trade associations to play hardball when they deem it necessary. You may find that the most interesting PR being done for the companies involved in a particular industry is actually being done by their trade associations.

These are all avenues for getting at the behind-the-scenes aspects of your story. When talking about PR, there are always two things you want to look at: (1) the behind-the-scenes stage management and orchestration that the audience isn't intended to see, and (2) the onstage stuff that is intended for public consumption. When you're looking at the onstage stuff, ask yourself, "Is this information accurate? Is this spokesperson who claims to be independent actually someone who was recruited by an industry with vested interests in the topic at hand?" If you find questionable statements or practices, try going in through the front door, asking some probing questions, and trying to trace the statement up the ladder to its source.

If the PR topic you are studying involves coverups of environmental and public health risks, there may be trial lawyers who have gone after these companies with toxic tort litigation. Depending on the nature of the litigation, these attorneys may even have internal company documents that they are free to disclose.

PR industry awards

  • Search PRSA's Past Winning Silver Anvil Awards. The Public Relations Society of America every year awards its Silver Anvils to companies and PR firms to "honor the very best in public relations practices." You can search past winning Silver Anvil Award and read the summaries, written by the entrants, of winning campaigns.

Profiles on anti-environmental groups and Greenwash

  • CorpWatch Greenwash Awards are given out every other month to corporations that put more money, time and energy into slick PR campaigns aimed at promoting their eco-friendly images, than they do to actually protecting the environment.

Tracking conservative groups

The following other websites also contain information that you may find helpful:

  • The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center tracks reactionary ballot initiatives around the country, providing information by state and by issue. Its resources section has archived articles on ballot initiatives, links to organizations and publications on the issue, and a searchable database of campaign contributions to ballot initiatives.
  • Institute for First Amendment Studies operated from 1989 to 2001, advocating separation of church and state and features regular, critical reporting on the activities of the religious right in publications including Freedom Writer.

Investigative Journalism Tips

Profiles of advocacy groups and think tanks

  • Issue Ad Watch, a project of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), looks at "issue advocacy groups" that conduct advertising campaigns during elections, "groups with benign-sounding names who hide their identity and whose names don't necessarily match their message." Many of these groups rely on an obscure corner of the Internal Revenue Code known as Section 527, a provision that opens the way for groups to raise and spend unlimited sums on political activities without any disclosure, as long as they do not expressly advocate voting for a candidate. For additional information about organizations that exploit the Section 527 loophole, see the report by Common Cause, Under the Radar: The Attack of the "Stealth PACs" on our Nation's Elections.
  • IssueAds@APPC is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Its website contains profiles of advocacy organizations that have aired broadcast issue advertisements since January 1, 1999. Not all of these organizations are front groups, but many are.
  • Political Research Associates is a nonprofit research center that collects and analyzes information on anti-democratic, authoritarian and racist right-wing movements.

Funding and finances of groups and individuals

  • GuideStar.org provides an online database with basic financial data and sometimes other information about more than 700,000 nonprofit organizations. To qualify for tax-exempt status in the United States, a nonprofit organization must be registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) organization. They also must file an annual Form 990 with the IRS, listing their income and expenses for the year, salaries of top employees and other information. Form 990s for the last three years for many organizations can be viewed and downloaded free from GuideStar after registering. Older 990s can only be accessed from the site if paid for. Newly-submitted Form 990s that are not yet posted to GuideStar can also be obtained by filling out an IRS form 4506A and faxing your request to: 801-620-7896.
  • Open Secrets, a website maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics, keeps an online database of election campaign contributions that can be used to compile giving breakdowns organized by categories such as candidate, party, and economic sector.
  • MediaTransparency.org maintains online databases of people, recipients, and funders of the conservative movement. Their website has a nifty feature called the Fund-o-Meter, which lets you evaluate any web page on internet against their databases for signs of bias.
  • ExxonSecrets.org is a website that explores the links between ExxonMobil, think tanks, corporate friendly scientists, and government officials. The interactive website, sponsored by Greenpeace and based on the research of CLEAR (Clearinghouse on Advocacy and Environmental Research), illustrates how ExxonMobil has funneled over $12 million dollars since 1998 to influencing the global debate on climate change.
  • Capital Research Center (CRC) is a conservative think tank whose stated mission is to do "opposition research" exposing the funding sources behind consumer, health and environmental groups. It maintains a searchable online database of funders for groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the American Cancer Society, which can be a useful research tool provided you take its pro-tobacco, pro-industry bias with a grain of salt. CRC claims that exposing the funding of these groups is important because "sunshine--the glare of public scrutiny--is 'the best of all disinfectants.'" But CRC doesn't seem to think its own hidden agenda should receive public scrutiny. We searched the CRC website in vain for any mention of where it gets its own funding, and they have not responded to our email queries. (CultureWatch has written a report on CRC's background, showing that its leadership "reads like a Who's Who of the establishment right.")
  • Integrity in Science, a project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, maintains a database of scientists and nonprofit organizations with ties to industry, along with a list of scholars and contact organizations concerned about industry ties and conflicts of interest.
  • The National Institute on Money in State Politics maintains a database on campaign contributions at the state election level (not federal offices). Visitors can search across states and by issue for contributors as well as by candidate.

Tobacco industry documents

There are millions of pages of internal tobacco industry documents accessible via online searchable databases. As the tobacco industry funded a wide range of groups, sceptics, scientists and campaigns there are numerous documents on issues much wider than just tobacco and smoking issues.

  • Legacy National Tobacco Documents Library. As part of the 1998 attorney generals' settlement with the tobacco industry, tobacco companies were required to create online repositories containing millions of pages of internal tobacco industry documents and to make those documents searchable by keywords including the names of any organizations or people that they mention. In addition to tobacco itself, these documents are a great place to look for information in general about people and organizations that front for industry. The Legacy National Tobacco Documents Library, which is hosted by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), offers the most comprehensive single place to search tobacco documents, but websites also exist for each tobacco company, as well as for is now-defunct front groups, the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. Since Philip Morris is the largest tobacco company, its website has the largest collection of documents.
In August 2004 UCSF, in conjunction with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Mayo Clinic launched a beta test site containing 600,000 pages of previously difficult to access British American Tobacco (BAT) documents held in BAT's Guildford Depository in the UK. You can check it out at http://bat.library.ucsf.edu

Chemical industry archives

  • Chemical Industry Archives, a project of the Environmental Working Group, is a searchable collection of 37,000 pages of internal chemistry industry documents, plus reports written by the EWG detailing the industry's "high-stakes, high-priced public relations war against the American public."

Domain Name Registration

  • NSI-WHOIS Lookup. Use this site to find out who is sponsoring an internet domain name.

Miscellaneous

  • Dirt Diggers Digest - Index of Sources is a long list of links to databases, public records and other useful sources for researchers, compiled by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

Other SourceWatch Resources