Drilled S3Ep3: Psychological Warfare, Astroturfing, and Another Tobacco-Oil Connection

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University; Christine Arena, former Edelman PR executive; and clips from Daniel Edelman, founder of Edelman PR.

WWI news clip about Nazi propaganda: These German pictures, destined for certain neutral countries, were intended to spread Nazi propagada, but Dr. Goebbels tripped up badly, very badly…

Amy Westervelt: Just a few months after their meetings with Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the Third Reich’s propaganda machine kicked into high gear. Within a year they were at war, and using techniques they’d learned from Lee and others to cover up atrocities and to sell the German public – not only on the war effort but also the superiority of the Aryan race. In the final months of World War II, that propaganda took a very Ivy Lee-style turn into completely made up news stories about German wins in battles that had never even happened.. In those months, a young Jewish American reporter was charged with analyzing and combatting those claims. That man’s name was Daniel Edelman. Here he is, remembering those days.

Daniel Edelman: Doing the psychological warfare thing was fascinating because we were offsetting the claims made by the Germans. It was all lies…. And we had to disclaim them.

Amy Westervelt: Edelman would ultimately spend four years working in psychological warfare. He became an expert on propaganda, and how to combat it. And he put that expertise to work for American industries, from beauty products and Sarah Lee to cigarettes and Big Oil. He added several new tactics to Big Oil’s propaganda machine, including a unique blend of lobbying and media relations, that he called “marketing public relations, and a fun new thing called “astroturfing” that involves creating fake “grassroots” groups. That’s the story we’re going to get into today. I’m Amy Westervelt and this is Drilled, Season 3: The Mad Men of Climate Denial.

Daniel Edelman was born in 1920 in Brooklyn. He was a diligent student and something of a boy genius, so by 16 he was already at university. He ultimately went to Columbia Journalism School, and spent the first year or so of his professional life as a journalist, mostly covering sports and human interest stories.

When the U.S. joined World War II, Edelman wanted to enlist but his poor eyesight got in the way. Within a year, so many infantrymen had died the military no longer cared about things like eyesight, it needed bodies. Edelman was drafted. But his vision still made him ineligible for combat. And his background in journalism made him a perfect fit for counter-intelligence. He was sent for training, and then on to join the Fifth Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company in London.

WWII mobile radio tape: “This is your American expeditionary station, in the field with the fifth army.

Amy Westervelt: After learning for a time in London, Edelman was tapped by a former Columbia classmate to join him in France, helping to prepare a nightly analysis of German propaganda. Edelman was soon in charge of the entire operation.

Daniel Edelman: He says it’s a good job. You work in a truck and in psychological warfare and I said fine.

Amy Westervelt: When the fighting ended, Edelman was transferred to Berlin to help shut down the German propaganda effort and state-owned media. He actually helped start the popular magazine Der Spiegel which he and a few other Americans ran for a few months before turning over to German ownership. For a while, Edelman thought he might stay in Germany and take a job as a reporter there. Eventually his family dissuaded him and he returned home. And then, Like Ivy Lee before him, and plenty of journalists since, Edelman struggled with whether he wanted to report the news or make the news, live the modest life of a journalist or take advantage of the burgeoning post-war economy in America and get into the business side of communications.

By this point he had worked in psychological warfare for years and he knew that expertise would be valuable in the public relations business. So he went for it, and took a job for his brother-in-law’s music label. Through that job he met the folks behind the Toni hair company, who eventually hired him to run their PR department, which brough Edelman to Chicago.

As the PR guy at Toni, he took the company’s ad campaign – which twin has the Toni? – on the road, with six sets of twins. The campaign featured side-by-side twins, both with perms, and dared customers to guess which had a salon perm and which had the Toni home perm.

Toni ad: Which twin had the Toni? You can’t tell? Nobody can. Not yet, anyway. But wait. Only Toni gives you this twin guarantee.

Amy Westervelt: Media tours had been part of political campaigns forever, but product companies had never bothered with them. Edelman saw that as a missed opportunity to score hundreds of local press hits and move product in communities across the country. And he was right. In addition to getting coverage in local newspapers, radio and TV, at one point during the tour the twins were arrested, in Oklahoma, for “performing salon services without a license.” Edelman turned it into a national news story that made Toni a household name.

It also paved the way for another new approach to P.R., one that included a bit of lobbying on the side. The Oklahoma arrests happened because salon owners were pissed about these home perm kits taking their business. Salon owners in states across the country were mobilizing to push for laws that would ban kits like the TOni kit. So Edelman got busy meeting with state legislators and applying some of those psy-opps moves, mocking the salon owners and their proposals until they were literally laughed out of state building after state building. A couple years later, he started his own firm, calling it Daniel J. Edelman and Associates, with Toni as his first client. But within a few years, he had signed several huge clients, including Mobil Oil, Sarah Lee, Heinz, and several tobacco companies and tobacco trade groups. His hunch was proving correct: What he’d learned about psychological warfare was extremely valuable to American industry.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, you don’t have to take my word for it. Edelman’s son Richard bragged about this history in a tribute to his father on the Edelman website.

Richard Edelman clip: My dad was a real New York City kid. Born in Brooklyn, went on to highschool, Columbia College, and Columbia Journalism School. He went on to work in Europe in the U.S. army for four years in psychological warfare, and when he got out, somehow the cumulation of all these experiences led him to become the father marketing P.R.

Amy Westervelt: “Marketing public relations” was the term Edelman came up with to describe his 360-degree approach to PR – it wasn’t just media relations, it was also legislator relations, and true public relations where you were creating a direct relationship between the company and the public. One way to do that was to pretend to be part of the public yourself.

Christine Arena: I’m a 20-year communications industry professional. I’ve worked in corporate PR for a long time, on lots of different kinds of accounts. Including fossil fuel accounts, which I hated.”

Amy Westervelt: That’s Christine Arena. She was an executive vice president at Edelman’s firm, by that time just called Edelman. Arena headed up the firm’s sustainability division right at the same time that it was representing the American Petroleum Institute. She and a few other executives at the Firm made the news when they quit en masse over the companies dealings with fossil fuel clients. She can’t share any specific inside information about her time there, so she’s speaking here generally about the firm’s reputation and about the techniques deployed by the fossil fuel industry.

Christine Arena: That creation of fake, grassroots support which came to be known as astroturfing. Edelman was genius at doing that.

Amy Westervelt: Edelman and his firm worked with multiple tobacco and oil clients, all big fans of “astroturfing.”

Christine Arena: So fossil fuel industry organizations fund these fake front groups and they give these fake front groups, these names that sound there, like perfectly innocuous names like the California Drivers Alliance or the Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy. And these groups there are hundreds of them are usually secretly run by lobbying organizations like those two I just mentioned are actually run by the Western States Petroleum Association, which is a top lobbyist for the oil industry. And that group, the Western States Material Petroleum Association, is in turn funded by members including BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Occidental, among others. So it’s fake activism, it’s corporate money posing as activism. And and it’s designed to undo all of the progress that real activism makes.

Amy Westervelt: Working for both tobacco and fossil fuel clients, Edelman also invented litigation PR. Basically making his clients’ cases in the media. A key part of this was what Arena calls the “attack the messenger” strategy.

Christine Arena: Rhey are relentless at the attack the messenger strategy. This has been ongoing for like 30 years. So the most effective attack the messenger strategy to me is like the use of labeling. So, for example, if climate scientists refer to facts and data rather than ideology, then they’re labeled liberal elites. If climate scientists or activists are alarmed by the data, then they’re labeled alarmists. If climate scientists apply for grant dollars to fund their research, then they are accused of being in it for the money.

Tom DeLay: The report is made by scientists that get paid to further the politics of global warming.

Rick Santorum: If there was no climate change, we’d have a lot of scientists looking for work. The reality is a lot scientists are driveb by the money.

President Donald Trump: All of this with the global warming, and da da da, a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money making industry, ok?

Amy Westervelt: Arena says that while tobacco used the same strategy, the fossil fuel guys were just better at it. Big Tobacco would attack the whistleblowers personally, Big Oil – they attacked the whole idea of fossil fuels being any sort of problem. Because they’d spent decades crafting the narrative that fossil fuel is an essential part of American life, it was easy to call anyone who thought otherwise un-American, effectively politicizing the issue.

Of course we know that Big Oil learned new tactics from Big Tobacco, too, namely in the form of science denial. And Daniel Edelman was right there, too. In the 1970s Edelman proposed an aggressive campaign for the RJ Reynolds tobacco company. It contained more than a few echoes of the PR giant’s time in the trenches of psychological warfare.

Salem tobacco ad: Country soft, country fresh, that’s the taste you get wherever you light up a Salem, because Salem genty’ air-softens every puff, for the smoothest, most refreshing taste of any filter cigarette.

Amy Westervelt: The proposal begins by suggesting, for example that, “The non-smoker must be made to feel that the smoker cares about him. It is our sense that the non-smoker is divided into two general groups – those who don’t really care if others smoke; and those who are growing more hostile to anyone who does smoke. We need to woo the former group to our side; we need to soften the opposition of the latter. Step 2 is pure science denial. Edelman recommends “We need to pierce the solidly-assumed notion that no additional research is necessary on the subject of cigarette smoking, Imaginative and creative ways must be found to correct this Impression.” Of course one of those creative ways is to create doubt. Edelman proposes: “We need to counter public impressions based on oversimplification by dramatizing pinpointed areas of study that are mysteries to researchers and scientists on both sides of this issue.”

That proposal won Edelman a contract, and the firm would go on to work for Big Tobacco for more than a decade. If the science approach they recommended for tobacco sounds an awful lot like the climate science denial that starts showing up a few years later, there’s a reason for it. Edelman also worked for several fossil fuel clients, and the American Petroleum Institute. That’s important because by the 1980s the API, Ivy Lee’s brainchild, was pushing the industry away from researching climate change and toward denying it. Former Exxon scientist Richard Werthamer told us that in Season 1. 

Richard Werthamer: The key is the American Petroluem Institute. Exxon had a huge influence, rightly so, in the API and I think the API changed its tune, and probably other majors went along with that.

Amy Westervelt: And you can hear exactly the same sort of strategy that Edelman suggested for RJ Reynolds in this speech from then-ExxonMobil CEO and American Petroleum Institute president Lee Raymond in 1996:

Lee Raymond: Proponents of the global warming theory, say that higher levels of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, are causing world temperatures to rise and that burning fossil fuels is the reason. By scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the climate.

Amy Westervelt: You heard that right? Raymond said the evidence that humans contribute to climate change is “inconclusive.” But this speech was in 1996, long past the point where Exxon’s own scientists had said climate change would cause catastrophic damage for some percentage of the planet in the not so distant future if emissions weren’t curbed.

In the late 1990s, Daniel Edelman’s son Richard took over as CEO, but Dan remained involved for the rest of his life. In various interviews, and in Edelman’s biography, Richard said he talked to his dad daily about the business. They didn’t always agree, of course. When he took the reins, Richard almost immediately decided to drop tobacco clients, for example. The writing was on the wall about tobacco by that point, and what it cost the firm in tobacco billings it more than made up for in good PR and new clients.

The firm did continue to apply the same strategies for Big Oil for several more years though, including, as Daniel Edelman’s biography puts it, “putting a human face on Big Oil for the American Petroleum Institute.”

American Petroleum Institute ad: Leading the world in oil and gas production. I vote to keep it going. With the right policies we can produce, refine and supply, more oil and natural gas.

Amy Westervelt: Edelman picked up where Ivy Lee had left off, continuing to tie the extraction of oil, coal, and gas to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, And again, it’s hard not to see the roots of Edelman’s World War II work in the approach the firm crafted for Big Oil. Suddenly anyone who wasn’t pro-oil was anti-American.

Daniel Edelman died in 2013, but the firm that bares his name continued to apply the same tactics that he’d been using effectively for decades. In 2014, Greenpeace leaked several documents that showed an aggressive campaign that Edelman had come up with for TransCanada to push the Keystone pipeline. It includes all the same tactics we’ve talked about here: aggressive opposition research, fake grassroots groups, attacking the messenger, and a big nationalistic messaging push. In 2015, the firm announced that it would no longer be working with coal companies or any company that denied climate science. By that point, they’d already lost not only executives but also clients, and the reputational risk was just too great. However, that same year, Edelman spun off its internal advertising group, Blue, which continued to work for the API.

American Petroleum Institute ad: More secure American jobs opportunity and economic growth for our children and grandchildren, that’s why this election I’m voting for American energy.

Amy Westervelt: For all the rah rah America stuff the oil industry pushes, these campaigns often work to subvert democracy. In his most recent research, environmental sociologist Bob Brulle found that the biggest indicator of fossil fuel PR spend was the likelihood of any sort of climate legislation passing.

Bob Brulle: When you look at their public relations spending, the more the more Congress starts to have hearings and write bills dealing with climate change, the more they start spending on public relations the next year. In other words, you start having hearings this year. Next year, you’re going to have a public relations onslaught from the oil companies, telling you how good they are, how they’re so responsible and good corporate citizens, and that whatever problem it is that you’re talking about, they’re right on top of it and handling it. And the hidden messages is: so therefore, there’s no need to regulate us at all.

Amy Westervelt: In some cases they move even faster. As the Washington Post just reported, the oil guys just dropped a $1million targeted ad buy the day after a couple of current Democratic candidates said they might ban fracking. And in 2008, when Demcrats won control of all branches of the government heading into the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen, they were spending preemptively. The API alone spent a whopping $75 million with Edelman.

Bob Brulle: I don’t think there’s any other way to call it other than propaganda, which is a one sided message designed to create a certain impression, that’s exactly what it was. And it’s very focused, targeted, extremely well done and apparently pretty effective.

Amy Westervelt: So we went from Ivy Lee working with Standard Oil to World War I propaganda to Lee advising Hitler and Goebbels to Daniel Edelman learning the tools of the trade by studying and countering the Third Reich’s propaganda in World War II, and bringing those tactics right back to Big Oil.

Next time we’ll meet another key architect of the propaganda apparatus, Herb Schmertz, the PR legend who took on Mobil Oil after Edelman. And guess what? Schmertz also started out in military intelligence. He wound up adding so many new bells and whistles to the propaganda machine that we’re gonna spend two episodes delving into his story. See you then.

For more, visit the DrilledNews podcast website here.

Drilled S3Ep3: Psychological Warfare, Astroturfing, and Another Tobacco-Oil Connection