Drilled S3Ep2: The Oil-Nazi-Propaganda Triangle

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University, and Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University.

AP News video Germany 1933 plays.

Amy Westervelt: This is a newsreel from the Associated Press in Germany, April 6, 1933. The headline is “Boycott of Jews Is Enforced by Nazis”. That same month, in the U.S. and the U.K. an anti-nazi boycott began, discouraging people from buying German products. Hitler was chancellor, and had been building his case against Jews and communists for months, calling them the “enemies from within” who had caused Germany devastating losses in WWI.

Later that year, IG Farben, the largest chemical company in Germany gave Its American publicist a massive new contract. That man was Standard Oil PR guy Ivy Lee. He had been working for Farben in the U.S. for about $4,000 a year since 1929. In 1933 the German parent company offered him $25,000 a year, and his son $33,000 a year for advice. Standard Oil was also working with Farben; by this point they had formed a joint venture to work on petrochemicals and synthetic fuels. They’d seen what Lee had done for Standard Oil and the Rockefellers and with the boycotts and growing anti-German sentiment in the U.S. Farben wanted Lee’s help.

And the reason for the big raise soon became clear: he wasn’t just advising a German chemical company.  He was advising the Third Reich.

Amy Westervelt: Now as far as we can tell from various available documents the point was not to sell the Nazi regime and its ideas to America as-is, but for Lee to convince the Nazi leadeship to tone down the rhetoric, to shift some of their thinking – make themselves more palatable to Americans. One of the big things that Lee was focused on initially was getting them to drop the idea of kicking the foreign press out of Germany because that idea had been floated at the time and it was something Lee thought of as a clear indication of Facism. In January 1934, Lee takes meetings with Hitler and also with his minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels and offers them some advice. To get along better with Americans, Lee suggests they stop pushing propaganda in the US and rather than kick out the foreign press in Germany, they should befriend them.

This advice was actually documented in written testimony a few months later in written testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee by US Ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd. Dodd goes on to write about a conciliatory speech that Goebbels delivered to diplomats and the foreign press saying quote, “it was plain he was trying to apply the advice which Ivy Lee urged upon him a month ago.”

Lee testified about his work in May of 1934. It wasn’t the first time he’d been investigated by the government. Lee’s work for the Soviet Union had also raised suspicions. He often bragged about being responsible for the U.S. resuming trade with Russia, a feat he firmly believed was good for business in both countries. He took a similar stance on his work with the Third Reich, but the press didn’t necessarily see it that way. When his testimony was released to the public, reporters grilled Lee and he did the exact opposite thing he’d always advised clients to do – instead of talking to the press, he dodged them.

By August, Hitler had become not just chancellor but also president of Germany, officially the fuhrer. Ivy Lee had developed a brain tumor by this point. In his last months he met again with Dodd, who wrote about this meeting in his diary. He wrote: “Today the old man looked broken and in spite of talk about his cure I am sure his health is very poor. He has made his millions the last twenty years and now the world knows how it was done.”

Lee died in November 1934. He couldn’t answer any more questions so the government closed their investigation of him. And he wouldn’t live to see what his last clients would do.

So why would the Third Reich go looking for a publicist in America? Because in just 20 years, Lee had turned John D. Rockefeller from a man routinely described as the most hated man in America into a kindly philanthropist who was widely admired. He did that through a combination of tactics that have been used by everyone from dictators to CEOs ever since, and that are still very much in use by the fossil fuel industry today. And he created essentially the first front group, an oil industry organization that allowed individual companies to pool resources and vastly expand their reach, without anyone really noticing. That’s the story we’re going to dig into in this episode.

I’m Amy Westervelt and this is Drilled, Season 3: The Mad Men of Climate Denial.

If you haven’t listened to episode one yet, go back and do that. This season we’re looking at the history of Big Oil’s big propaganda machine, and the specific spinmasters who helped to create it.

You met Ivy Lee last time:

Ivy Lee clip: Mr. Rockefeller listened to me patiently, pleasantly and calmly until I finished my presentation.

Amy Westervelt: The thing you need to know about Ivy Lee’s first years in P.R. is that he invented some of the fundamental techniques that are still in use today: the press release and the press conference are the two you probably know best.

President Donald Trump clip: In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

Amy Westervelt: But arguably the most important method Lee perfected, the foundation of PR, was the use of tightly controlled language. He believed that words really matter and that industry should try to control them. 

We see this today all the time. In the case of climate change, for example, the term has shifted over the years…

News clip montage: The greenhouse effect. Global warming. Climate change.

Amy Westervelt: All of that – the press releases, the press conferences, the language, the wordplay, it’s all so common now that it’s hard to even imagine a time before those things existed. But when Ivy Ledbetter Lee was growing up, in Georgia, America was a very different place.

Lee was born just a few years after Americans discovered that oil could be used for energy. Before that, it was just this annoying substance that came up when we were looking for water, or salt. And then it became a cure-all.

Seriously. People used to put crude oil on sore muscles, or even drink it to treat everything from cholera to bronchitis. But by the 1870s the oil rush was on.

Journalist Ida Tarbell chronicled those days in her magnum opus, The History of Standard Oil.

Ivy Lee was born during those 1870 boom years. He was the son of a popular minister in Georgia. After graduating from Princeton University, Lee worked as a reporter for a few years. Then, like so many journalists since, he got tired of being broke and took a job as a publicity guy. From there he got into political campaigning, and he worked for the Democratic National Committee for a while, the DNC. There, he met a guy named George Parker who was working on the campaign of Judge Alton Parker. The judge is a candidate no one remembers b/c he got absolutely trounced by President Theodore Roosevelt who won the election that year.

When the election was over, George and Ivy joined forces to create one of the country’s first PR firms.They were also the first to distinguish public relations from just “publicity.” Publicity was about getting your picture in the paper. Public relations was about building a real relationship. Not just between your client and the media, but also kind of using the media to make a better relationship between your client and the public.

As a former journalist, Lee really believed that companies should be more transparent with the press. In his mind, rather than hiring publicity managers, companies should be hiring staff journalists to help them explain themselves to the public … so yeah, we might have him to thank for that trend. Lee worked with a bunch of coal companies that were pretty regularly embroiled in labor disputes. So he put out this “declaration of principles” that was all about how companies should be truthful and authentic. But what he actually helped them do is use the truth to sell lies, which is a key tactic the fossil fuel industry still uses today. Here’s science historian Naomi Oreskes:

Naomi Oreskes: One of the reasons its so easy for people to sow doubt about climate change or any other issue, is that, if confusion is your goal, mixed messages are a very effective strategy. So you can say a lot of different things, and some of them may well be true. And you can even quote out of context the true things you have said in order to make it seems as if you’re quite reasonable, as if you’re operating in good faith, and you are an entity to be trusted.

Amy Westervelt: You can totally see the roots of that in the very first press release, which Ivy Lee wrote. In 1906, Parker and Lee were working on behalf of The Pennsylvania Railroad Company when one of its trains fell off a drawbridge in Atlantic City. Fifty people were drowned, and the railroad came to Lee … basically looking for help covering it up. Because that was how the railroads handled things at the time. They were constantly having wrecks, and then covering up what happened. But Lee had learned from his time w/ the coal companies, that this kind of a thing was just a bad move; it made the public distrust you. And besides, it wasn’t always the railroad’s fault that these wrecks happened.  Plus, he was starting to realize that whoever told the story first was the one the public really listened to. SO, he convinced the Pennsylvania Railroad guys to go a different route and draft a statement to send to the media instead.

And it does exactly this thing that Oreskes talks about, it uses various truths to ultimately mislead people. It says the wreck happened, the company doesn’t know why yet but it’s investigating, but it knows that it’s not the rails or the bridge, or the operators. And it lands on a suspicion of the cause of the wreck – the manufacturing of the train car … which of course is the only thing the railroad has no responsibility for. So it never outright lies, it just leads to a particular conclusion that benefits the railroad.

Lee sent this statement to the New York Times and got an incredible result: the paper printed it word for word. And now, suddenly Lee realizes, “wow, this is a lot of power.” I can just tell journalists what the story is and they’ll print it? This is a big deal. And a pretty big tool for industry. It wasn’t just generally a better idea to tell people what you’re actually up to, communicating with the press in this way also gave you the opportunity to shape the story. So that’s a big big shift in how the public gets information.

A couple years later, Lee has another big breakthrough. He realizes another key part of shaping the story is shaping the language journalists use to describe his clients and what they’re doing.

So by this point his firm has shut down, he and George have parted ways, and he’s working full-time for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He writes the first P.R. advice book, and in it he says the key thing that companies need to worry about is getting the public on their side. And he talks about how you can use language to do that. He gives the example of railroads and the Full Crew Law.

So like I said, at the time there were a lot of wrecks. And actually a lot of them were happening because of negligence and because trains were understaffed. So, the government steps in and they try to impose what they called “full crew” regulations … basically you have to have full staff on your train to make sure it’s safe. But Lee flipped the script on that. He had Pennsylvania Railroad start talking about these regulations as “extra crew” requirements. So just think about that for a second.  The difference between “full” and “extra” and what a stroke of genius this was. “Full” implies that the railroads are cutting corners, that their crews are lacking in some way. “Extra” implies that this is not a necessity, that the government is asking railroads to do more than they need to and imposing a burden on them. It’s totally standard industry spin today, but we have Ivy Lee to thank for that.

And that’s a good thing to remember that this kind of thinking was going on in the background of corporate communications, very strategically, more than a 100 years ago, especially when you listen to the way the industry describes itself today.

Oil company ad: We’re leading the world in oil and natural gas production. That means lower energy costs, more growth, more security for Americans. More energy, means more opportunity. We just need the right policies to make it happen.

Amy Westervelt: By the time Ivy Lee began working with Rockefeller in 1914, he was a master at this stuff. And shortly after that, the U.S. joins WWI and Lee is tapped to run publicity for the American Red Cross.

That job puts him in regular contact with the government’s propaganda department, which was also run by a former journalist turned political campaigner, a guy named George Creel. Creel had helped campaign for President Woodrow Wilson with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of the War.”  So, now that Wilson was joining the war, he wanted Creel’s help convincing the American public that it was a good idea.  And Creel was up to the task. He pulled together both journalists and publicity experts, graphic designers, musicians, filmmakers basically anyone who had worked in or around media and entertainment in any way. And he launches a full blown propaganda campaign across film, print and radio.

Even Ida Tarbell was a member of that commission.  It was all hands on deck.

The Creel Commission, and Ivy Lee at the Red Cross, were also tasked with creating a positive image of America outside the country. The guy in charge of that for Creel was Edward Bernays, who just so happened to be the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays put all of his uncle’s psychological know-how to work on behalf of the country. He went on to become one of Lee’s top competitors and, like Lee, to have a large influence on Hitler’s approach to propaganda. But in those days they were focused on selling America to the world, and learning a lot from each other.

One of Bernays’ strokes of genius was to enlist Hollywood in the effort, banning the export of anything that showed America in an even slightly negative light, and funding movies that highlighted the bravery of American soldiers.

It was the broadest and best-funded P.R. effort Lee had ever seen, and the experience taught him one very key thing: if you can pool together enough resources, you can wage an all-out psychological war that’s impossible to beat. Which of course gave him an idea for his best client, Standard Oil. One company, even a company run by the Rockefellers, could only do so much. But what if they came together as an industry? They’d already kinda done it. A Petroleum board of all the companies was pulled together during the war to make sure there was a steady supply of fuel to the front. If they could come together during war, why couldn’t they do it to benefit the industry in peacetime?

Here’s environmental sociologist Bob Brulle:

Bob Brulle:  vy Lee draws on his experience in the war propaganda board effort to start developing larger institutional public relations efforts. And he works with the head of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which we now know as Exxon Mobil, to form the American Petroleum Institute in 1919. And so the American Petroleum Institute is now one hundred years old, and it’s considered to be the really the first modern, sophisticated, public relations oriented trade association in the world.

Amy Westervelt: So in 1919, Ivy Lee begins representing not just the various Standard Oil companies.  But also a new oil industry group: the American Petroleum Institute. With the resources of the entire industry behind it, the API didn’t have to choose between media relations and lobbying, or influencing the film industry and the news press. It could do all of it, and more. This is really Ivy Lee’s great and lasting contribution to how the world sees the oil industry today.

For more than a century now, the API has been running a multi-pronged propaganda campaign, indoctrinating Americans with the idea that the oil industry is a fundamental part of American life. It started just after WWI, went right through WWII, and has carried on ever since. Here’s a bit from a short film the API released in 1950 called 24 Hours of Progress:

API clip: The production of oil is a measure of american progress. As our nation grows, so grows the need for petroleum.

Amy Westervelt: Now compare that with this 2018 campaign they ran, called Power Past Impossible:

API clip: I believe the things we’re doing with technology, we’re bushing the boundary of what the oil and gas industry has seen.

Amy Westervelt: So before this guy talks there is a lot of hard-pumping music and some patriotic word salad on screen connecting the oil industry to everything you know and love about America. It is really heavy handed, and very America! Fuck yeah! And it’s clearly trying to target young people. Part of this ad ran during the Super Bowl, other parts showed up all over YouTube and various podcasts. But again, remember the big lesson Ivy Lee brought home from World War I to the oil industry was not just, pool all these resources into a big group that can’t be tracked, but also pool all the resources so you can wage a multi-front, all out propaganda war. So it’s not just commercials that we’re talking about here, it’s way broader and deeper than that. Here’s Dr. Brulle again:

Bob Brulle: The American Petroleum Institute was actively engaging in public relations activity. And I did find some material about their educational outreach to elementary and secondary schools in the 1960s about, you know, getting their viewpoint about energy and petroleum into schools, which starts certainly in the ’60s and continues to this very day.

Amy Westervelt: It’s every aspect of society and culture, from Superbowl ads to educational materials in schools. For 100 years. Repeating the same message: oil is good, oil is American, oil is necessary for progress. Oil is good. Oil is American. Oil is necessary for Progress.

Next time on Drilled, we’ll meet our next spinmaster – Daniel Edelman. He learned all about psychological warfare while combatting nazi propaganda in world war 2 and came home and used those tricks on behalf of various industries includeing the fossil fuel industry and his largest client the american patroleum institute.

Drilled is part of the Critical Frequency Podcast Network. The show is reported, written and produced by me, Amy Westervelt. Julia Ritchey is our editor. She also plays the role of Ida Tarbell in this episode. Our managing producer is Katie Ross. Sound design, scoring and mixing by Bhi Bhiman. Rekha Murthy is our editorial advisor. Naomi LaChance is our fact checker. Special thanks to Richard Wiles. Drilled is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Sustainable Governance and Development, and its Center for Climate Integrity. We appreciate their support. You can find Drilled on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t forget to leave us a rating or review, it really helps the show! AND you can visit our new website DrilledNews.com for climate accountability reporting across multiple verticals. You can also sign up for a couple of great newsletters there and get additional information and behind-the-scenes photos from this season. And we’ve finally pulled the trigger on a dedicated Drilled twitter. So if you follow me on there, consider giving Drilled a follow too. We’re at WeAreDrilled.