A “culture of secrecy” pervades the highest levels of the PR industry says Bob Burton is his powerful book Inside Spin, which won this year’s Iremonger award  for writing about public issues.
The industry’s peak body, the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), expects members to adhere to a “strict” code of conduct. But Burton maintains the industry maintains a “culture of secrecy” and estimates only about a quarter of the people employed in the industry are members of the PRIA. Its code of ethics obligates members to disclose sources of funding for campaigns, but another provision in the code requires members to “safeguard the confidence of clients”. In effect the latter provision trumps the first.
The contradictions implicit in this situation are damning, Burton says, especially given the drive from PR companies to promote the notion of corporate social responsibility among their clients. “For many companies, disclosing the names of clients is a balancing act between wanting to impress potential clients with their PR prowess while avoiding debate over some of their less savoury clients and controversial campaigns.”
The book is timely given the boom in the PR industry in the past half decade. In that time it has grown at a rate of 20 per cent, and it turns over more than $1 billion a year in Australia. Despite employing about 10,000 people it is difficult to get a full sense of the industry. “Exactly who falls within the PR profession is something of a moot point, as the boundary lines between PR, marketing and lobbying are often blurred,” says Burton.
The chapters on the relationship between PR and the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries are especially revealing. Globally the drug industry generated $US 608 billion in revenues last year. It is the world’s most profitable stock market sector. Australia’s share of the market is small but still worth $7.8 billion a year in sales. Dr Peter Mansfield from the industry watchdog Healthy Skepticism points out that the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx killed hundreds of Australians in 2004. ”It killed more Australians than the Bali bombing and we are spending billions on anti-terrorism projects but we are not doing anything about drug advertising.” Ironically, the drug industry sponsors Australia’s most lucrative journalism awards.
Burton identifies the heart of health and pharmaceutical PR as third-party credibility – getting seemingly independent groups to say nice things about drug companies and their products. “Third-party messages are an essential means of communication for validating scientific credibility, for legitimising products, for building brand and disease awareness, and for building differences against crises,” Burton quotes Nancy Turett, president of Edelman’s health practice, as saying. Little wonder, Burton wryly notes, that the tobacco industry has a better reputation in Australia than the pharmaceutical companies.
Last year the global tobacco industry generated revenues of $US 348.57 billion. Smoking was also responsible for the death of 750,000 people, the World Health Organisation calculates. The industry has decided to opt for “reputation management” as part of its campaign strategy. Burton notes that in Australia many PR programs for multinational companies work from a global template. The policy in Australia appears to be based on a commitment to combating under-age smoking, promotion of sensible regulations governing the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products and the demonstration of “good corporate conduct”. Burton joins the dots in showing how in Australia both these industries appear to turn to PR companies staffed by people with links to former government ministers and lobby groups. Burton also shows the links between tobacco and major media companies. He cites a 1985 memo from Hamish Maxwell, CEO of Philip Morris, the world’s largest private tobacco company, saying that media proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch were “sympathetic to our position”. The media “like the money they make from our advertisements”. Murdoch was on the board of Philip Morris from 1989 to 2002.
Burton also illustrates the influence of think tanks. Last year articles from the Institute of Public Affairs, based in Melbourne, appeared an average of almost four times a week in the opinion columns of major newspapers. Most of that content is supplied free. Burton describes the IPA’s role as clearing the way for politicians and officials “to implement policies deemed too politically toxic to touch”. Think tanks are equally secretive about their funding sources, Burton says. He details the involvement of think tanks in major issues of the past few years, including the sale of Telstra, environmental concerns, Australia’s water policy, and free trade agreements. He describes their approach: obscure the funding source, court journalists with impressive-looking research and readily available talking heads, and “dovetail advocacy with allies in the media and politics to develop an ‘echo-chamber’ effect”.
This is a welcome book. It should be on the reading lists for all of the country’s journalism and public relations programs, especially the chapter “It takes two to tango” on the symbiotic relationship between journalism and PR. No hard data are available but the PR industry in Australia is growing – in July this year The Australian Financial Review highlighted the rising demand for graduates – while the ranks of journalists are thinning. The allocation of resources to online journalism, boosted by the growth of broadband, is putting more pressure on daily newspapers, traditionally the agenda setters.
Professor Steve Ross, recently retired from Columbia University, produces an annual survey of journalists’ use of the Internet. He concluded in his 2002 survey that journalists’ use of the Internet for research, especially for breaking news, had become “almost universal”. As journalists look to the web for information, PR companies are content to satisfy their needs behind the safety of online anonymity.
Burton believes the spread of the “invisible” and secretive forces that shape public debate in Australia is bad for society and incompatible with a healthy democracy. Australia’s democracy will be in trouble, he says, if the only voices citizens hear in public debate belong to people with enough wealth to fund PR campaigns, “especially clandestine PR campaigns”. By “shining a light” on the PR industry with this book, he hopes to help citizens, journalists and activists “understand how spin really works and help curtail its seemingly never-ending spread”. As United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted in 1914, sunlight continues to be the best disinfectant.
Inside Spin: The dark underbelly of the PR industry by Bob Burton, published by Allen & Unwin, 2007, has 313 pages and costs $29.95.
* Review written September 2007.