The sensible center

Often, PR is about driving consensus. Other times, it’s definitely not. Sometimes controversial issues are controversial by design. You want a “rational discussion” on climate change? So does ExxonMobil.  How else to ensure that everyone reading, watching, etc., this rational discourse understands first and foremost that there is much to debate and, therefore, the best course of action is to do nothing.

IClimate Changef you have not, you really must take the time to read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent book, Merchants of Doubt. It does a first rate job of detailing the parallels in strategy, tactics, language, funding, organizations and even individuals between the efforts of tobacco companies to obfuscate the link between smoking tobacco and cancer and the efforts of certain industries to promote doubt about human-caused climate change.

Big Tobacco was never interested in proving that smoking cigarettes wasn’t addictive or didn’t cause cancer. Yes, they made statements to that effect, issued studies and paid for “science” on these topics, but the goal never was to “prove” anything.  The goal was to provide another “side” to the story. Providing a veneer of credibility for that other side by funding studies, scientists and other “experts” fed an ongoing debate which, in turn, justified holding off on doing, well, anything. As the debate churned on, the cigarettes churned out and the toll in health and lives added up. Funding the ongoing rational debate was just a cost of doing business.

Today, the same tactics that kept Big Tobacco in escalating quarterly profits for decades after serious medical concerns were first expressed have been adopted by industries with a lot to lose if an enlightened public were to rationally engage with the well documented science behind anthropogenic global warming. And those tactics are likely to be just as successful.

Why? Because people typically respond to uncertainty with inaction. Why upend the entire economy and Our Way of Life if the science isn’t sound or settled? Better to do nothing, than make the wrong decision. Want to paralyze a population? Gin up a rational public debate.

The experts involved in studying climate change believe in the clarifying power of rational debate and the media love to cover a debate (seriously, how many Republican primary debates are we up to now?).  Both likely see this process as the best – and necessary – way to get at the truth of the matter. The parties driving this process, however, aren’t concerned with getting at the truth of the matter.

But by all means, insist on a rational debate to hear “both” sides of the climate change issue. ExxonMobil would appreciate it.

I know it when I see it

Unlike advertising, well-executed PR doesn’t hit you over the head. Rather, it becomes an organic part of the public conversation, shaping and directing it, often by defining key terms and setting acceptable boundaries of thought and belief. So, as a professional in the field, it is with no small amount of interest that I have watched a recent rash of stories popping up in some fairly weighty mainstream outlets – Bloomberg BusinessWeek, for example and – declaring that new developments in unconventional oil sources, primarily shale, have finally – or, perhaps, once again – disproved the Peak Oil “theory” that purportedly states we’re running out of oil.

This rash of Peak Oil denial articles has the earmarks of a classic PR push. How so? Well, sifting through the stories, I see a characteristic attempt to shape the conversation by redefining key terms and setting boundaries of discussion. A couple examples:

  • Peak Oil = running out: This shows up in a number of the articles and, for those who follow the issue, it’s an obvious misstatement. Peak Oil is primarily about rates of production, secondarily about the cost of those production rates and then about the net energy yield from that production. But that’s complicated. More casual readers won’t stay with a complicated discussion. An effective PR approach is to simplify the complication in a way that bolsters your position. In this case, inaccurately portraying Peak Oil as a claim that the world is “running out” of oil makes it credible to point to expensive, low flow rate sources like tar sands and shale oil as proof that we’re not.
  • It’s a Theory: A favorite from the playbook, you may recognize it from efforts to discredit the teaching of evolution. The American public, generally speaking, has a poor understanding of how science defines and uses terms. What most people call a theory, science might call a hypothesis – more akin to speculation or, at best, an educated guess. In the natural sciences, the term “theory” is applied to concepts whose explanatory powers comport accurately and consistently with empirical observations. But, again, that’s complicated. Going with the common misconception and consistently associating Peak Oil with the term theory subtly, but powerfully, discredits it in the mind of the casual reader.

So, why the rash of articles now? From a PR standpoint, it may have had something to do with a recent article in the prestigious journal, Nature, in which two respected scientists declared that Peak Oil was not only real, but already here. In PR we call this an appeal to authority. Casual readers likely don’t have access to Nature’s pay wall to read the article or follow the work of either scientist who authored the piece. But, the casual reader will place more credibility in the Peak Oil “theory” if it’s reported that an august publication has published an article by two respected scientists in support of it. If you’re in the fossil fuel extraction business, that’s a five-alarm PR emergency.

When clean isn’t green

Doing your best to tread lightly on the planet? Well, if you’re still laundering your clothes, you have room for improvement.

Turns out a single garment can release 1,900 microplastic fibers in a single wash, and fibers like these can end up in the food chain, says a study reported by the BBC. After being eaten, the plastics appear to get into animals’ cells.

“As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase,” says the study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. “Already, microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas.”

And you don’t get a pass for wearing natural fibers. As TreeHugger observes, “cotton causes other problems because of how much water and pesticides is used to make it grow.”

Information like this makes you wonder how much damage humans are doing beyond CO2 and the obvious chemical pollutants, and exactly how we collectively determine which damaging actions we most need to discourage.

However insidious, microplastic is defined as being less than 1 mm in size, so we’re dealing with a bit of an abstraction. For a more tangible experience of plastic in the ecosystem, see TreeHugger’s Great Pacific Garbage Patch slideshow. Or these photos, which find beauty in the blight.