The acceptable face of disaster

When horrors happen – like Bhopal or the Exxon Valdez – Burson-Marsteller pours PR oil on its clients’ troubled waters, reports Andy Beckett

If, by unhappy accident, you were to poison a river, or a customer, or the reputation, slowly assembled, of your corporate employer, then your salvation might arrive in a pale slim folder. Its paper is smooth and thick, save for two title pages of the filmiest gauze. On them is written, in thread-thin brown type, the following: “Perceptions are real. They can be managed . To motivate behaviour .”

The folder is a brochure for Burson- Marsteller, described inside as “the world’s leading crisis management consultancy”. At first, it is hard to take its italicised ideas seriously. Perceptions, the text insists, between woozily-painted illustrations of eyes, are just like “operations, finance, administration and human resources” – business properties to be exploit0ed, husbanded and expanded, preferably with the expensive guidance of a public relations firm like itself.

But the detail of this is more unsettlingly persuasive. Burson-Marsteller, a private American company, vaunts its expertise at “neutralising a threat, or gaining the support of key constituencies” for a client; it recalls “a grass roots campaign . orchestrated on behalf of several companies” against an American energy tax; and a “communications campaign [that] changed the “fur coat issue”: from being one of “animal cruelty” to one of the “right to choose”. Last year Burson- Marsteller was paid $233-billion by companies and governments, the largest income of any public relations agency for the second year running. The company represents among others (it does not release a full list of clients) Lloyd’s of London, McDonald’s, Ford, Philip Morris cigarettes, the timber industry of British Columbia and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and the new Hong Kong. The company”s 36 offices cluster and hum at the hub of every fast-growing region. Its parliamentary lobbyists clasp hands in Westminster and Washington.


What began in 1953 as an advertising agency offshoot, with a staff of four, has spread into something grander. “Our business is still considered by some as a facade,” Harold Burson, its founder and chair, has said, “but our contributions are, in fact, substantial. I believe they are mainly unrecognised.” He is right. Outside PR’s breathy trade press, Burson-Marsteller is barely better known ; yet, in its commission-hungry way, the company’s “contributions” to the world of money- making and governing are gilding its rough processes with a new and essential lustre. Burson-Marsteller once calmed the rage over the thousands killed by Union Carbide’s chemicals at Bhopal, explained the oil bleeding from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, soothed American nerves when Three Mile Island spilled out its nuclear poisons. Now it is persuading us to live with the market.

With the millions of the poor swelling, and the millions of the rich becoming critical, conscience-stung consumers, and the likes of Greenpeace exposing and embarrassing corporations all the while, the job of selling capitalism is trickier than it used to be. Companies need to appear “ethical”, the governments that compete for their investment need the appearance of “human rights” to succeed. So PR firms increasingly present themselves as reformers of corporations, as introducers of open dealing and curtailers of bad practice – as a righteous species of management consultant, in fact.

“Their duty is to act as the corporate conscience,” says Stephen Farish, editor of PR Week. Richard Bunting, head of media at Amnesty International, sees it a different way: “We have noticed more and more window- dressing.” The European headquarters of Burson-Marsteller is in Bloomsbury, a couple of streets from Karl Marx’s old seat in the British Library. The building is a tall plain terrace in stucco and red brick. Behind this greying front, though, the offices extend and deepen, back and back, into a great corporate cube – an air- conditioned multinational, like all the others, in comfortably discreet residence in the old world”s capital.

Burson-Marsteller offered a briefing. Last week an awkward story appeared about it: an internal report had been leaked, advising European producers of genetically-altered food to use “symbols, not logic” in persuading the public of its safety. A little self-PR is required.

Paul Philpotts, managing director United Kingdom, is to provide it. He sits, hair slicked back, behind a matt-black conference table. Philpotts, who was once assistant editor of an engineering magazine called Control And Instrumentation, has taken his jacket off. His tie is loose, his cuffs untidily rolled, and he speaks in the flat, direct tones of an unfussy polytechnic lecturer.

“You have to look at the work we do, not the clients we work for,” he says. Two colleagues flank him, listening and taking notes. “There are some things that are black and white. We will not represent organisations that have acted illegally. Where we are asked to distort the truth, we do not undertake the work . We will never ever work on political causes.” Then there is Burson-Marsteller’s requirement that projects receive the “blessing” of the United States State Department; the “full discretion” offered employees to opt out of uncomfortable cases; the 24-hour company hotline for their anxieties, the 13-page code of ethics and conduct.

He reaches for a metaphor: “Nobody says Red Adair’s a bad guy, going round putting out oil fires, and that’s very similar to what we do.” Philpotts pushes out his lower lip to look frank. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I was talking to one of our crisis guys this afternoon and he said, `Show him the client presentation’. The last slide says: `Tell the truth.'” This is Burson-Marsteller all over. Open. Ethical. Diverse. Concerned, above all, to deal in “the truth”. In Westminster, its lobbyists don’t lobby, they do “public affairs . ensuring that information is available to MPs”. In Bhopal, as the dead lay in their beds, “We set up an information centre. Union Carbide had an interest in that information being communicated.” Philpotts says all this without effort or hesitation. His colleagues deploy their full corporate armoury of casual, shirt-sleeved mutual affirmation. But their argument for openness is ultimately not convincing. Did Union Carbide really “have an interest” in publicising the horror it had precipitated? How exactly do polluting companies gain from public confession? Amnesty’s Bunting points out the flaw in the kind of righteous logic companies like Burson- Marsteller employ: PR companies benefit from PR disasters – they take a fat cheque home for dealing with the consequences of disasters.

Back in the presentation room, Philpotts allows hints of a more believable pragmatism to show. The benefits of openness, it turns out, are not deemed appropriate for his company’s list of clients: “As a matter of principle, the norm here is not to discuss clients unless they specifically ask us to.” Commercial confidentiality has a future after all: “In a crisis, companies don’t want to look as if they’re out of control.” Near the end, Philpotts lets slip a small appeal to self- interest. “Just as you wouldn’t feel offended to drink a glass of Argentinian wine, we wouldn’t feel offended to represent them.” In the Seventies, while soldiers of that country were dropping dissidents out of helicopters, Burson- Marsteller was being paid to promote Argentinian “trade”. Nowadays, away from the New Age platitudes of its brochures, the company’s internal paperwork maintains that macho willingness to accept unsavoury commissions.

In the leaked document about genetically- altered food, areas of public concern about health and the environment are described as “killing fields”, to be evaded without comment by the biotechnology companies. Burson-Marsteller’s plans for a pro- genetics media campaign are summarised as “Fight fire with fire”. Later, the document refers to “the socio-pathology of public outrage”, more usually known as public opinion.

In fact, Burson-Marsteller has long regarded popular feeling with ambivalence: to be feared, but also to be moulded. An earlier document, Grass Roots Mobilisation, lays out the strategy. “Grass roots focuses on local people whose influence and/or opinions are critical to our client,” it begins. “[These] local supporters never speak for the client . but they always take the same view of the issue as the client.” In America and Canada, Burson-Marsteller has used such devices to help establish, among other mass-membership groups, the National Smokers’ Alliance, the Forest Alliance (to promote the “wise use” of woodlands) and a campaign for a growth hormone that boosts milk production. In Britain, the company has been clever in a related fashion: for example, by recruiting Des Wilson, founder of Shelter and fulcrum of countless good causes. Even environmentalists have been hired as consultants.

Paul Philpotts, in his careful way, sees nothing amiss with all this organising and assimilating: “Most of what we do – I’m trying to be quite exact here – is presented through another medium. Through newspapers, through radio .” Oddly, though, he doesn’t mention the grass roots groups.

Burson-Marsteller has lived with its exposure, by a succession of “green” journalists, for years. And for all the outrage of Amnesty and Greenpeace, every liberal’s favourite charities live, in small part, in symbiosis with Burson’s shirt-sleeved PR men. Each provides daily reasons for the other’s existence. Each, arguably, profits. But it is not that hard, in the end, to spot the good guys.

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