Drilled S3Ep7: John Hill and the Tobacco-Oil-Plastic Triangle

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.

Carroll Muffett: When you look behind the veil, you find that it’s the same companies, it’s the same firms. Often it’s the same people providing these services. And nowhere is that clearer than, for example, with the role of Hill and Knowlton.

Amy Westervelt: Remember a couple weeks ago, I said I’d found some new leads that were relevant to this season. One of them was the guy you just heard talking There, Carol Muffett, who runs the Center for International Environmental Law. I already knew about Carol and his organization, of course, but what I didn’t know was that he had quite a bit of information and documentation that has never been published on the various public relations firms that have worked with the fossil fuel industry and specifically with both the fossil fuel industry and tobacco.

Carroll Muffett: Hill and Knowlton, which is widely recognized as a lead advocate for the tobacco industry in the tobacco wars. Hill and Knowlton was simultaneously and from a very early stage, also actively representing an array of oil and gas companies on issues of concern to them. And often the same account leads on the tobacco campaigns were also account leads for oil companies.

Amy Westervelt: As we learned in earlier episodes this season, these two industries have a long history of influencing each other, and at the center of that influence are a few key spin masters. They’re the guys we’re focusing on this season. I’m Amy WESTERVELT and this is Drilled. Season 3, The Mad Men of Climate Denial. Today, we’re going to dig into the story of John Hill, founder of Hill and Knowlton.

John Hill was born on a farm in Indiana in 1890. His grandfather had been wealthy, but his father lost all the family’s money in a series of business deals gone wrong and Hill would spend the rest of his life chasing the company and approval of rich men.

Like a lot of our other Mad Men, he started his career as a journalist. But unlike the others, he seems to have been fairly good at it. While they each spent a year two struggling to make journalism happen. Hill was a financial and business reporter for 17 years before he got into the PR game. He even started a couple of newspapers himself. Although he struggled to keep them afloat, some things never change. His first foray into PR came in 1920 in Ohio when he took a gig creating a newsletter that Cleveland’s union trust company wanted to send out to local executives.

By this time, he was the financial editor of a steel industry trade magazine, because Ohio. These jobs put him in regular contact with executives who complained to him constantly that most reporters were inept at numbers. They also introduced him to a lot of influencers and executives in the area. And eventually Hill saw a niche that he could fill, helping companies explain themselves to reporters who didn’t get it quite as well as he did. Hill opened up his own firm in 1927 with Union Trust and Otis Steel as his first clients. Because Hill was well liked by local executives. Word spread fast and within a couple of months he’d built an impressive roster. It included United Alloy, Steel, Republic Steel and Standard Oil of Ohio. The Standard Oil account was an important win for Hill because guess what? He was a huge Ivy Lee fan. Our first featured Mad Man Lee may have tapped Edward Bernays as his successor, but John Hill was probably the more natural fit for that role. Hill hated how flashy Bernays and many of the other PR guys of his day were. He preferred Lee’s distinguished Southern gentleman shtick, and he emulated it like Lee. He preferred to stay behind the scenes. Although Hill took it to an extreme, almost never appearing in the press, when he did show up in public, it was always in a conservative suit, clean shaven hair slicked back, wire rimmed glasses.

But just when his business was starting to take off…

News clip: The tremendous crowds which you see gathered outside the stock exchange are due to the greatest crash in the history of the New York Stock.

Amy Westervelt: Marketplace Hills Steel and Oil clients weathered the financial storm, okay, and Republic Steel had just helped us score the firm Aweil, the American Iron and Steel Institute, the trade group for the whole industry. They requested the Hillen Nalden open up a New York branch near their headquarters in the Empire State Building. That same month, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office.

Hill, hated the New Deal, and so did most of his clients. Standard Oil had him write up an advertorial assuring people American business would be OK, and his steel clients had the firm cranking out pamphlets, emphasizing the great relationship between steelworkers and their managers. The reality, of course, was that steel workers and their bosses had been fighting for a long time and America’s big steel companies had done everything they could to repress unionization. As the largest industry in the country and the largest employer, the steel industry kind of viewed itself as the last defense against unionization. A protector of American business. Defender of bosses everywhere. They were helped in their efforts by near constant concern about creeping communism in the U.S., starting with the 1919 Red Scare and continuing for decades. Anti-union pamphlets Hill and Knowlton made for Republic Steel highlighted how union shops actually infringed on workers rights.

A closed union shop denies the right of the individual worker to make his own choice as to whether he wishes to belong to a union.

It’s the exact same line you see in anti-union ads today. Another Hillen old client. The National Association of Manufacturers, one of the earliest industry trade groups, went beyond pamphlets to sponsor a weekly pro-business anti-New Deal radio drama called The American Family Robinson.

The American Family Robinson clip: It’s time to join the American Family Robinson again and Birchbox. But one thing is a situation ought to get credit for is bringing everybody face to face with cold facts. That’s right. Remind the country of something more specific. It’s only business and industry that can provide soldiers and sailors with the proper equipment. That’s what I say.

Amy Westervelt: But after more than a decade of suppression, the labor movement was gaining steam again a few years after opening his firm’s New York office. John Hilll, faced his first big challenge in PR and just like with his hero, Ivy Lee. It came in the form of a violent labor strike. Steel workers were starting to band together, by 1936, forming the Steelworkers Organizing Committee within one of the country’s biggest unions, the CIO. This officially freaked steel bosses out the American Iron and Steel Institute put Hill and Knowlton on the case, and they wrote up full page ads with a manifesto for the industry. The ad suggested that outside agitators had coerced employees into joining the union. On the last day of June and the first day of July 1936, the trade group sponsored full page ads in three hundred eighty two newspapers in 34 states.

But the unions persisted. In 1937, U.S. Steel agreed to recognize the unions and negotiate a contract that made it more difficult for the other companies to resist. But there was one holdout Little Steel, an umbrella group that included all the smaller, independent steel companies led by a man named Tom Girdler, president of Republic Steel, Hill and Norton’s client, they refused to have any sort of contract with a union. And then in May 1937, Girdler was elected president of the trade group.

Apparently by this point, he had been stockpiling weapons for months, planning on some kind of armed battle with the union. Later that month, a strike began at the Republic Steel Plant in Chicago.

News clip: Army striker and armed police in front of a South Chicago steel plant. Tear gas and clubs and bullets casting an ugly cloud over an American scene. Ten people dead and 90 people injured because tempers on both sides had overcome reason.

Amy Westervelt: The union quickly branded the event the Memorial Day massacre. They held a mass funeral in Chicago attended by hundreds of working class residents. Then another riot broke out at another republic plant. This time in Youngstown, Ohio. The FDR administration was having none of this. By October, the National Labor Relations Board had ordered the companies to reinstate more than 7000 workers with backpay. Then the Senate launched investigations into the steel bosses methods because of Hill’s involvement in pushing anti-union messages and ads in newspapers. He was caught up in this investigation, too. Senator Bob LaFollette discovered that not only had John Hill placed ads, he had successfully bribed a journalist. George Sokolski, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, frequently wrote about free enterprise and anti-union ism in magazines like The Atlantic Monthly. From 1936 to 1938, Sokolski received $29,000 from Hill and Knowlton to write anti-union articles for the Steel Industry Trade Group, and it worked. He wrote stories in prestigious newspapers and magazines about how the riots were all the union’s fault. Never disclosing his connection to Helen Knowlton or the steel industry. Sokolski also regularly ranted on the radio for the National Association of Manufacturers and various other pro-business groups. Here he is complaining about that terrible socialist policy Social Security.

George Sokolski clip: the federal government’s Social Security Act passed by Congress, signed by the president. Now the law of the land. When we think of that, we have something very specific before getting close to five billion dollars annually within the next 15 years will be met by taxes, which refers to increased prices, reduced profits and possibly even reduced employment of late.

Amy Westervelt: The dude was like a progressive era Rush Limbaugh. Ultimatley, WW2 rendered the whole labor argument moot. The factories were required to unionize, but were also kicked off another red scare, further solidifying HILS conservative, pro-business, anti-government ideology. And it’s that ideology that fueled his work for his next big and lethal client. More on that after the break.

World War 2 had just put an end to years worth of labor strikes in steel mills. John Hill was hired to help the industry through it all, but his work on that front was basically a failure. Not only had his clients lost the war with labor, but their goonish tactics had been outed in the press. They looked just like the evil bosses they were pretending really hard not to be. A lot of people would have lost those accounts for bungling the labor strike so thoroughly. Hill had read the room entirely wrong, and not only that, he’d gotten busted bribing a journalist. But by this point, the steel and oil barons who made up Hill’s clientele considered him a friend and equal, a trusted confidant. And he spent almost as much time managing how his clients saw him as how the public saw them.

By this point, Hill had also learned a very important lesson. His job was not to sell the public on any particular product, company or industry. It was to sell Americans on the importance of American business in general, and particularly big business. He was pushing ideology, creating social license for American industry, and that meant working in Washington, too. Shortly after the war, Hill and Knowlton became the first PR firm to have an entire branch dedicated to public policy work. The Washington office didn’t have its own accounts. It existed solely to handle government relations for the firms New York and Cleveland clients. By this point, that meant they had their hands in everything from energy policy to agriculture and all points between. For clients like Texaco, Marathon Oil, Coca-Cola, Monsanto and a big new client, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee.

Marlboro clip: Listen, while I tell you what story. The Tale of the Marlboro Brand.

Amy Westervelt: We’re going to spend a fair bit of time talking about the Tobacco Industry Research Committee for a few reasons. First, it’s a really good example of the type of strategy Hill would typically recommend for industries. Second, it shows how adept he and his firm were at manipulating the press. And third, because Hill is a huge link between tobacco and oil. Not only did he have oil clients early on who informed some of his work on tobacco and vise versa, but he often brought them together in the same trade groups. R.J. Reynolds, for example, a key member of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, also had their research arm join the American Petroleum Institute, a client of John Hill’s by this point. And then there was the more direct intersection which attorney Carroll Muffett pointed out to me.

Carroll Muffett: Gas stations were the most important retail outlets for cigarets for decades. And for the oil companies, cigarets were their most important retail product other than gasoline itself.

Amy Westervelt: Fascinating, right? But it makes complete sense when you think about it and also helps explain why there were so many overlapping ad campaigns between the companies. Moffett says there are two things that make this remarkable.

Carroll Muffett: One was the joint marketing strategies and documents and analysis that the oil companies would do together with the tobacco companies.

Amy Westervelt: The tobacco industry archives are filled with these strategies and reports, and many of the joint ventures were between two Hill and Knowlton clients.

Carroll Muffett: So by the time you get to the 1980s and 1990s, we were finding joint meetings of advertising managers from Exxon Mobil and RJR or for Chevron and Philip Morris.

Amy Westervelt: And these meetings were not just quick debriefs either.

Carroll Muffett: They would often include detailed requirements about where the cigarets would be posted, what aisles they would be visible to ensuring that they were set up next to the candy. One of these reports runs to 200 pages and includes incredibly detailed analysis that broke people down by demographics, by neighborhoods, by socioeconomic status, with the goal of targeting them very individually.

Amy Westervelt: Muffett tells me There, entanglements eventually went beyond advertising.

Carroll Muffett: And so it’s perhaps unsurprising, though it’s also very little known that the oil and gas companies actually ended up as defendants in the tobacco suit.

Amy Westervelt: I did not know that, but it’s true. I double checked the tobacco industry archives and there they are Texaco, Chevron, Exxon, Esso and more all named defendants in the tobacco suits,

Carroll Muffett: Even less understood and the thing that I think we found most striking was that when tobacco companies needed to assess the toxics in their cigarets and in cigaret smoke, the people they turned to to do it were the oil companies.

Amy Westervelt: Hold on. What? Why would they do that? Well, remember, by this point, the oil companies had had their own air pollution issues because of smog and led in gasoline. So they had all the equipment necessary to do this sort of testing at the time. And it’s also worth repeating that John hell. repped both the main oil industry group, the American Petroleum Institute and the main tobacco industry group, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Here’s Muffett again.

Carroll Muffett: And when the oil companies reported back to the tobacco companies on the toxins they were funding in that smoke. You know, what did they do with the information? Did they go public and say there’s a massive risk here? No.

Amy Westervelt: Instead, they entered into a joint enterprise with the oil companies agreeing to make cigaret filters for Big Tobacco, a product Muffett calls

Carroll Muffett: One of the most ubiquitous plastic pollutants in the world: Cigaret filters. And the leaders in developing them were Exxon and shell. And they did it because they saw a marketing opportunity and a market opportunity in capturing the smoke.

Amy Westervelt: And of course, for tobacco, it wasn’t just a handy defense against rising health concerns around smoking. It was also a chance to sell more cigarets

Philip Morris ad: Which filter cigaret do you recommend? Philip Morris makes a filter, a filter that’s full of flavor.

Carroll Muffett: It’s really worth recognizing that as part of the tobacco litigation, it came out that both the filter manufacturers and the tobacco companies understood all along that those filters were a marketing tool, that they did virtually nothing to reduce the toxic nature of cigaret smoke. And those filters are not just, you know, they did more than just create a new product stream for the oil and gas companies and create an excuse for the tobacco industry to continue selling cigarets. They also, you know, started showing up in the environment over and over as the cutting edge of the plastics crisis.

Amy Westervelt: It’s true. Every time you see one of those inventories from beach cleanups or big ocean plastic cleanups. One of the top five items they collect is always cigaret butts because of the filters. Well, of course, I know that oil companies are in the petrochemical business and definitely linked to plastic. I’d had no idea that they had come up with the cigaret filter or that filters were complete bullshit and they knew it, that they were just made to throw up a smokescreen for tobacco and create a new revenue stream for big oil.

So while all of this back and forth is happening between the oil guys and the tobacco guys. Hill and Knowlton has their staff funding and sourcing research on all the other things connected to lung cancer. And they’re looking for scientists to sign on to the advisory board of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. This was all Hill’s brainchild. The tobacco companies initially argued with him. They didn’t want to do a whole separate research committee. They’d already done their own research. And they thought that Hill should just be pushing that instead of trying to get them to fund more studies.

They didn’t need a whole independent research committee. But Hill insisted they needed third party independent research that would be perceived as more credible than the company’s own research by the media. Eventually, they gave in. In December 1953, the CEOs of all the major American tobacco companies met with Hill at the Plaza Hotel to launch the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Now they just needed a reputable cancer researcher as their scientific director. And that was not easy to find.

So in the first several months of the committee’s existence, its research was conducted by Hill and Knowlton staffers. There are all of these internal staff memos from this time where they’re giving updates on clients in the oil tobacco connection is stark because you’ve got updates on Texaco followed immediately by updates on this phony research committee with lots of the same staff on both. Eventually they hired Dr. Clearance Cook Little. He went by Ceecee and Hill and Knowlton proclaimed him a world renowned cancer researcher, which was a bit of a stretch.

He’d been president of the University of Michigan and had worked for a year as the managing director of the American Cancer Society. But he’d never actually done any cancer research. The quote unquote, cancer lab that little ran raised mice for actual researchers to use. In the hands of Hill and Knowlton, though little became a widely respected researcher. So much so that in May 1955, when famed journalist Edward R. Murrow wanted to tackle the smoking controversy in a two part special. Little was introduced like this.

Edward R. Murrow news clip: The cigaret industry, aware of this fact and fully cognizant of its responsibility, has organized the Tobacco Industry Research Committee. Its scientific director is the eminent cancer investigator, Dr. Currence Cook, little head of the Jackson Memorial Laboratory at Bar Harbor, Maine.

Amy Westervelt: The research group arranged for Murrow to talk to two other, quote unquote, independent scientists, both of whom are also on tobacco’s payroll. Unbeknownst to Murrow and the resulting documentary actually had the effect of making the logit scientists who hadn’t gone through Hill and Norton’s extensive media training look like activists and the industry plants looked like the serious, logical adults in the room,

Edward R. Murrow: Doctor little have any cancer causing agents been identified and cigarets?

Dr. Little: No, none had ever either in cigarets or in any product of smoking as such,

Amy Westervelt: Although he officially retired in 1962, John Hill remained very involved in his firm going to the office daily right up to a month before he died at the age of 86. In 1977, Hill had stayed true to his commitment to stay out of the press himself, and none of his industrial machinations were well known at the time of his death. His New York Times obituary sounds like it could have been written about any kindly octogenarian at the time, “always conscious of his health, Mr. Hill lunch daily on cottage cheese and fruit or prune whip and claimed that he worked out in a gym two nights a week,” it reads. “He rode his own horses around his place and Pauling New York weekends, frequently with business executives who also love the sport and spent two weeks each year bareback riding in Arizona.”

Yet prune, whip and bareback riding and manipulating Americans. That’s John Hill.

Coming up next week, we’ll meet the couple that spawned climate denial. And we’ve got two more episodes for you this season after that. So stay tuned.

Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency. The show is reported, written and produced by me, Amy WESTERVELT. Our editor is Julia Ritchey. Our editorial advisor is Rekha Murthy Sound Design and Score by B Beamon. Katie Ross created the amazing artwork for this season. Special thanks to our First Amendment attorney, James Wheaten and the First Amendment Project. Thanks for this episode. Also to researcher Karen Miller for her terrific book on John Hill, the voice of business and journalist Dan Zegart for sharing some of his reporting on Hill and pointing me to the whole Murro fiasco Drilled has made possible in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. We appreciate their support. You can find Drilled wherever you get your podcasts. Remember to leave us a reading or review. It really helps people find the show. You can follow us on Twitter at. We are Drilled and visit our Web site Drilled. News dot com for more reporting on this subject and behind the scenes stories from this season. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.