Drilled S3Ep4: Oil Slick, Part 1—The Rise of the Corporate Persona

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University; Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center; Geoffrey Supran, research associate in the History of Science Department at Harvard UniversityCEOP.R. for Mobil Oil.

Herb Schmertz: If you’re going to do the job properly, you have to find unconventional ways to communicate to the public. It’s not a question of convincing the press of anything. It’s a question of convincing the public

Amy Westervelt: Keeping with our “Mad Men” theme this season, Ivy Lee was the father of public relations, the Bert Cooper if you will, and Daniel Edelman was the Roger Sterling. He took Lee’s foundation and spun it into a whole psy-opps operation, using a combination of human psychology and a bit of the old razzle-dazzle to schmooze legislators, trick the media, and keep big tobacco and oil clients happy. Herb Schmertz, that guy you heard up top, was the Don Draper. Slick and handsome, always with an expensive suit, he was the smartest guy in the room and mostly thought both journalists and other PR guys were idiots. Schmertz is the guy who really turned media into another propaganda tool for the fossil fuel industry. He ran P.R. for Mobil Oil from 1969 to 1988 and became a master of media manipulation. Schmertz didn’t just focus on placing particular stories, he set about fundamentally changing the relationship between corporations and the media.  To Schmertz, the press was more of an obstacle between him and the public, or Mobil and policymakers.

Herb Schmertz: And to do the job properly, you have to really go around the press or beyond the press or against the press to get a story out so that the public focuses on it, not the press. If you’re just going to limit yourself to getting the press to focus on that, you’re not doing the entire job.

Amy Westervelt: All of our Mad Men seemed to forever be just one step ahead of the press, and their ability to establish oil as such an essential part of American life that you couldn’t really question it … to the point where for a long time journalists didn’t even question it … is a big part of how it became so easy later to spread climate denial and delay climate action. I’m Amy Westervelt and this is Drilled, Season 3: The Mad Men of Climate Denial

Oil industry PR began, in part, as a response to journalists–remember Ida Tarbell from our first two episodes? She wasn’t the only muckraker with the oil tycoons in her sights. By the time Schmertz came around, Ivy Lee and Daniel Edelman had definitely messed with the media’s minds, but  Schmertz, perhaps more than any of these guys, fundamentally changed the structure of media in a way that really opened up the floodgates to disinformation. He invented the advertorial, for a start. He also invented issue advertising, which is now the only type of advertising the oil industry does. You’d think all they do is farm algae and research carbon capture and worry about climate change if you only paid attention to their ads.

American Petroleum Institute ad: America is built on diverse views. Different ways of doing the same thing. We all agree, we need climate solutions while meeting our rising demand for cleaner energy.

Amy Westervelt: Schmertz also bullied journalists into covering Big Oil’s side of the story, and he encouraged his peers to do the same. Which, sadly, worked really well. And he lobbied for corporate first amendment rights and against any media regulations that would make it harder for him to use the press as a tool.

Schmertz’s contributions to the art of spin are so vast, we’re going to bring you his story in two parts…. but like so many of the rest of our Mad Men this season, Schmertz began his career in military intelligence. And that’s where we’ll pick up.

Known during his heyday for dapper suits, cigars, and generally being something of a dandy, for the first half of his life Herb Schmertz seemed more destined to be Secretary of Labor than a famous PR guy. Unlike Ivy Lee and Daniel Edelmann, Schmertz started out as a lawyer, not a journalist. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1955, Schmertz was drafted into the Army. The  Vietnam War was just beginning. Given his law background, Schmertz was sent straight to work in counterintelligence in Washington, D.C.

After two years there, it was back to law for Schmertz. Labor law, following in the footsteps of his older brother. In 1960 Schmertz signed on to work for JFK’s campaign.

He was a Democrat and an idealist and he helped the campaign with voter registration and reaching out to special groups, including labor and various ethnic communities in New York. As a thank-you for his campaign work, Schmertz was made general counsel for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a government agency tasked with mediating big labor disputes in the country. Four years later, Schmertz was back in private practice, but still consulting regularly for the government.

When longshoremen from Maine to Texas went on strike in 1964, it was Herb Schmertz that President Johnson called in for help. When he went to work for Mobil, Schmertz was actually still working in labor. He handled the company’s labor relations for five years. But his background in law and political campaigning, combined with his relationships with various labor unions, made Schmertz an even greater, if unexpected, fit for the company’s public affairs office.

By this point, 1969, Rawleigh Warner was Mobil’s CEO. He wanted Mobil, which always seemed to be playing catch-up to Exxon, to be more of a visible player in the industry. Schmertz had a lot of ideas on that front, starting with the idea of humanizing Mobil. Giving the company a personality, complete with ideas that need to be shared. Here he is much later in life, describing his strategy:

Rawleigh Warner: Well, it was multifaceted, it was a personality where we believe very strongly about the importance of public policy issues. We believed fervently that as custodians of vast resources in employment and everything else, that we were not doing our job if we did not participate in the marketplace of ideas in the debates on public policy issues,part of our personality was we believed in that a democracy is composed of a group of free institutions. We believed in free markets. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, academic freedom. Freedom to organize and participate in union activities.

Amy Westervelt: Schmertz believed that “freedom of speech” was a right that corporations should have, just as much as individuals. Sound familiar? One of his first moves was to shift Mobil away from just advertising… you know, gas… and toward what came to be known as “issue advertising”. If you hear an oil company ad today it’s almost always about an issue. Consider this ExxonMobil carbon capture ad, for example:

ExxonMobil ad: Energy is a complex challenge. People want power. And power plants account for more than a third of energy-related carbon emissions. The challenge is to capture the emissions before they’re released into the atmosphere. ExxonMobil is a leader is carbon capture. Our team is working to make this technology better and more affordable, so we can reduce emissions around the world. That’s what we’re working on right now.

Amy Westervelt: They don’t even mention that ExxonMobil has a consumer product you can buy. You wouldn’t know from this commercial that they even supply gas stations. That all started with Herb Schmertz. But he didn’t stop there. In 1970 when the New York Times opened up its op-ed pages to advertising for the first time, Schmertz  developed a new kind of ad: the advertorial.

He wanted Mobil’s ads to be just as smart and provocative as any editorial that might appear in the section otherwise. He hired legit writers to write them, and eventually ran them every week, for decades. They ran the gamut from squawking about taxes to complaining about the media to unexpected takes in favor of public transit.  Schmertz talked about one of his advertorials on the PBS show “The Open Mind”.

PBS host: Herb, thanks for joining me today.

Herb Schmertz: Great pleasure to be here. Dick,

PBS host: I want to turn as quickly as possible to A New Fairy Tale, the mobile ad or op ed piece or editorial, call it what you will. That column,

Herb Schmertz: We call them pamphlets.

PBS host: But they appear in newspapers?

Herb Schmertz: Yes.

Amy Westervelt: “A new fairytale” was the title of Schmertz’s latest advertorial, and it criticized PBS for running a film that stereotyped Saudia Arabians. It was, of course, in Mobil’s interest to be seen as a friend and staunch defender of Saudi Arabia.

PBS host: Herbert, at the end, your conclusion in the ad, we hope that the management of the Public Broadcasting Service will review its decision to run this film. Meaning you hoped they wouldn’t run it? Well, at least I review it and exercised responsible judgment in the light of what is in the best interest of the United States. Do you think they did exercise responsible judgment?

Herb Schmertz: I think they they did a better job after this ad appeared than they otherwise would have.

PBS host: There were points of view taken very opposite to those that you’ve just expressed to them.

Herb Schmertz: Yeah, right. That’s that’s what the whole thing is about is to get all the points of view on the table.

Amy Westervelt: Of course, that advertorial was also coming from a corporation that happened to be spending a small fortune to underwrite programming on PBS… so it wasn’t necessarily the harmless sharing of ideas that Schmertz makes it out to be there. And really, no advertorials were. They were meant, as Schmertz said, to “influence the influencers.” And the company thought it worked. In various documents and speeches, Schmertz referred to how they helped shape the discourse on key issues to the company, and establish Mobil as the thinking man’s oil company.

In a long-buried briefing we found called “Corporations and the First Amendment” that Schmertz wrote for the American Management Association in 1978, he explains why he chose the New York Times for these ads. He writers: “The Times was chosen because it is published in the nation’s leading population, communications and business center; because it has a highly intelligent, vocal, sophisticated readership and b/c it reaches legislators and other government officials. In short, it was the paper most likely to reach the largest number of opinion leaders and decision makers.”

Schmertz also talks about the program as a great success in this briefing. “Mobil found that the medium worked,” he writes. “The messages stimulated discussion among influentials on both sides of the issue – exactly what the company had set out to do. In a document uncovered by Kert Davies and the Climate Investigations Center, Schmertz goes one step further. Here’s Davies to explain:

Kert Davies: They talk about  having influenced the New York Times editorial viewpoints. The document says, “Our analysis shows that the Times has altered or significantly softened its viewpoints on conservation – moving from a total reliance on conservation to advocating increased production incentives to solve the supply shortage. On monopoly and divestitures moving from approving the breakup of the oil companies to opposing divestiture. On something called De-control, moving from opposing De-control to urging phased deregulation on natural gas, moving from urging price controls to endorsing a speed-up of deregulation and de-control of new gas prices. And coal, moving from advocating stric environmental safeguards to suggesting more relaxed controls. On off-shore drilling, moving from valuing environmental concerns at the expense of exploration and development to urging accelerated off-shore drilling. And on Gasohol – which is another name for ethanol – moving from increased subsidies for Gasohol production from grain to arguing such subsidies.” So they’re tallying how they have affected the viewpoints of the New York Times on conservation, monopoly and divestiture, de-control, natural gas, coal, off-shore drilling and gasohol. All things they had written op-eds on.

Amy Westervelt: Now of course any PR guy worth his salt is always going to claim more success, and more credit for that success, than he might be due, but the important thing here is that the goal of the advertorials was to influence key decision makers. Harvard science historian Geoffrey Supran has studied these advertorials at length.

Geoffrey Supran: No doubt the fossil fuel industry has been very effective at, for one thing presenting itself, you know, in terms of personas rather than just  a corporation

Amy Westervelt: He says you can’t even tell the difference anymore.

Geoffrey Supran: Really embedding themselves into our culture and our society and our media in an increasingly insidious way that makes it hard to discern when you are being advertised to versus, you know, you’re simply being sort of reprogrammed to see that world and society in a slightly different way.

Amy Westervelt: Mobil was convinced enough that its advertorial strategy worked to keep running them weekly in the Times for decades. It was even a program Exxon kept doing after it acquired Mobil.

Geoffrey Supran: Mobil and ExxonMobil have pioneered issue advertizing for decades on, frankly, climate change and every other topic of political concern to them. They’ve been open and forthright about this even in some of the advertorials themselves, they literally invented modern opinion advertorials. And as you know, they’ve taken out about one in four of all the advertorials that ever appeared in, on the op ed page of The New York Times.

Amy Westervelt: Geoffrey has an accent and this was a phone interview, so I just want to make sure you heard that. One in four, so 25%, of all advertorials that have ever run in the New York Times’ op-ed pages, were commissioned by Mobil or ExxonMobil.

Geoffrey Supran: Political scientists studying these obituaries have described this campaign as towering over all other competitors in its sheer volume and expanse.

Amy Westervelt: ExxonMobil doesn’t run its advertorials anymore, but it’s moved on to the latest iteration: campaigns made by the New York Times itself. Yeah, let that sink in for a minute. It’s not the news room, it’s the brand studio the New York Times created, but still… the same company that puts out the New York Times newspaper making oil companies’ ads for them. See if you can spot a bit of the Schmertz magic here.

In 1978, he said the goal of Mobil’s advertorial campaign was to “stimulate discussion among influentials.” In 2020, the New York Times Brand Studio website’s main message is: “Stories that Influence the Influential.”

Here’s a campaign they did for ExxonMobil last year, highlighting the company’s algae biofuel program:

New York Times algae clip: These vibrant green dots, microscopic living organisms, are algae. Look closely, algae grows almost everywhere from rooky ponds to out in the ocean. And scientists recognize its potential to change our energy future.

Amy Westervelt:  Again, the brand studio is separate from the newsroom. There is a definite firewall between advertising and editorial. And every time I talk about these campaigns, New York Times reporters bristle at the idea that they are being accused of being manipulated or influenced by industry. That is not an accusation that I’m making. Whether they are or aren’t is not really the point, it’s not even really the goal of these campaigns. The goal is to reach and influence certain types of readers, opinion makers, influencers, policy makers. And to wrap the industry’s messages in the cloak of credibility provided by The New York Times … or The Washington Post, which also does this. Last year the Post ran a series of stories that its Brand Studio created for the American Petroleum Institute, all about “how natural gas and oil are helping to deliver a sustainable fuel mix.”

These campaigns are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for newspapers at a time when the business model for journalism has never been more strained. And when you ask for proposals on them, as I did, ad sales people start offering all kinds of other things. You could place content they write for you in the climate section, you can peg it to key words like climate change, and make sure it’s a suggested next read on any related news story.

In 2020, influence doesn’t look like an oil tycoon in a top hat showing up at your desk to twirl his mustache and tell you to spike a story. It looks like readers being fed a bunch of oil propaganda before, after and right next to your legit climate reporting. We have Herb Schmertz to thank for that.

But at this point, we can’t just blame Schmertz. The media has to look at its role in this too. After all, propaganda can’t exist without a delivery mechanism, and it’s been quite a while since the media knew what the industry was up to. We’re gonna talk about the media’s responsibility in a future episode, but first we’re gonna hear a little bit about all of the other things he did for the oil industry and for PR in general. Including, suggesting for the first time that companies don’t actually have to be nice to journalists. In fact, Schmertz, got a lot more out of bullying them.

We’ll also dig into that PBS underwriting I mentioned before, the entire network schmertz created for Mobil, how he ended up being one of the most influential men in British television. All that and even more, next time. We’ll see you then.

For more, visit the DrilledNews podcast website here.

Drilled S3Ep4: Oil Slick, Part 1—The Rise of the Corporate Persona