Burson-Marsteller Hires a Green 'Cash Cow'

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This article was first published as "Burson-Marsteller Hires a Green "Cash Cow"in PR Watch, Volume 9, No. 1, 1st Quarter 2002. It original article was authored by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

As we have reported many times in the past in PR Watch, it is not unusual for PR firms to seek out opportunities to put leading activists on the payroll. Previous examples from within Greenpeace have included Patrick Moore and Paul Gilding. On January 8, the Guardian of London reported the latest defection: Lord Peter Melchett, the former head of Greenpeace UK who led civil disobedience actions opposing genetically modified (GM) foods.

"Lord Melchett . . . startled former colleagues yesterday by announcing he had taken a job at a PR company which has represented Monsanto and the European biotech industry," the Guardian reported. "The former Labour minister and farmer, who is on the board of Greenpeace International, is to become a consultant for Burson-Marsteller. . . . Burson-Marsteller is the company that governments with poor human rights records and corporations in trouble with environmentalists have turned to when in crisis."

Melchett's decision prompted criticism from activists and journalists such as Catherine Bennett, who pointed to B-M's history of PR work for clients including "Monsanto, Shell, Union Carbide, Scottish Nuclear, Exxon, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer (to say nothing of Saudi Arabia, Ceaucescu, the Indonesian government and the Argentina junta). . . . Lord Melchett is infinitely valuable to Burson-Marsteller, because since 1986, he has been a figurehead in campaigns against its corporate clients. . . . The famous symbol of Lord Melchett in his white decontamination suit, being led away be a policeman, still adorns the Greenpeace website. Arguably, that symbol now belongs as much to Burson-Marsteller as to Greenpeace."

Melchett responded to criticisms by insisting that his "values have not changed at all" and that his work as a consultant for B-M's "corporate social responsibility unit" would consist of telling "the truth" to clients. An initial internal document from Greenpeace UK to its staff suggested that Melchett would not have to compromise his beliefs: "Peter's advice to companies will be 'go organic, do the right thing,' rather than help bad companies avoid the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth," the memo stated. "Peter will only take on the briefs that he chooses, there is no question of him working for BAT (British American Tobacco) or the Burmese junta."

Within a week, however, mounting criticism compelled Greenpeace International to request that Melchett resign from its board. Greenpeace International chair Anne Summers announced the resignation, praising Melchett's personal integrity but stating that his new job would be in conflict with the environmental group's principles and campaign goals.

Reed Irvine, a conservative PR advisor who advises companies to attack activists, also criticized the hiring, calling Melchett a "new cash cow" for Burson-Marsteller. "He can be charged out a high rate, earn a good salary plus expenses, contribute significantly to the bottom line, satisfy WPP Group shareholders who own B-M, and offer little value to clients," Irvine wrote. Calling Melchett an "extremist," he wondered what real advice he could give to clients like Monsanto. "To be consistent with his stated, uncompromising beliefs Lord Melchett should advise companies with interest in GM to stop researching, developing, commercializing and marketing GM products."

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