Drilled S3Ep8: Meet the Harrisons

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; Nicholas Johnson, an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973; and clips of PR executives E. Bruce Harrison and Patricia Harrison.

Amy Westervelt: Modern public relations industry was created as a response to basically creeping democracy, more and more people were wanting in on this freedom thing and it made the country’s titans of industry nervous.

You had the muckrakers, journalists like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and Ida B Wells writing about the dark side of the American dream, exposing the robber barons who ran the coal, oil and railroad industries, calling for fair treatment of workers and factories, and shining a light on systemic and often violent discrimination. And you had various groups fighting to expand the vote to people who weren’t white, male or rich. Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays emerged in the midst of this and put their propaganda skills to work, helping the powerful stay right where they were.

Bob Brulle: I think what’s interesting is that the exact same kind of thing occurred in the 1960s when corporations started again being held responsible for their environmental, health and safety records by the new social movements that come out of the 60s, the civil rights movement, the consumer movement and the environmental movement.

Amy Westervelt: That’s Brown University environmental sociologist Bob Brulle. He’s the first person who told me about the focus of our episode today. A guy by the name of E. Bruce Harrison.

Bob Brulle: Into this breach steps E. Bruce Harrison to develop newer social technologies, to be able to equip corporations, to be able to address this new challenge to their image. So there’s a great deal of parallel between the muckrakers in the progressive era and the environmental movement and the new social movements that come out of the 1960s and how industry got at first caught flat footed.

Amy Westervelt: One of the many interesting things about Harrison is the fact that his wife Patricia was very much his partner in crime. The Harrisons ran a PR firm together from 1973 to 1996. They were real partners, equals. Patricia was sort of a prototypical career woman, a 1970s Sheryl Sandberg, if you will. Here’s E Bruce in a 2010 interview describing Patricia as one of his mentors.

E. Bruce Harrison: My wife Tricia, who joined me in business for 25 years until we sold the firm and who taught me far more about public relations and communications and presentation than I could possibly have known. I’m like half the presenter that she is,

Amy Westervelt: The Harrisons were as subtle as they were brilliant. They changed the way the industry talked about environmental issues, not just in terms of what they said, but how they communicated, how they got their message out. Dr. Brulle once described them to me as the intellectual parents of climate denial. And having researched them for a year or so now, I don’t think that’s an overstatement. They’re still active today in ways that might surprise you. That’s the story we’re gonna tell. In this episode, I’m Amy WESTERVELT and this is Drilled Season 3, The Mad Men of Climate Denial.

E. Bruce and Patricia Harrison had pretty different childhoods. Bruce was born in 1932 in Linette, Alabama. Patricia’s birth date is tough to find, but she was born into an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn. And she’s a fair bit younger than Bruce. He’s 88 now and retired. While she’s still very much working, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Like a lot of our Mad Men, E. Bruce is a thwarted journalist. Here he is explaining his reporter roots started off as a journalist.

E. Bruce Harrison: That is to say, a newspaper reporter always wanted to be one. Grew up in Alabama. At the age of about 10 or 12 years old. My brother and I. He’s. You’re too young. And I started following newspapers, reading newspapers. And the facts started to create rival newspapers that he and I would write and try to sell to neighbors.

Amy Westervelt: For some reason, more than half of the PR legends we’ve covered this season didn’t just start out as reporters, but specifically sports reporters. Something to do with game theory maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, Ebe roosted too,

E. Bruce Harrison: I followed that path toward being a newspaper reporter. My dream was to become a sports reporter or a sports editor of a daily newspaper. That was my dream for many years. Ended up doing sports reporting in high school and in college. University of Alabama ended up editor of the campus newspaper. Graduate journalism.

Amy Westervelt: But it wasn’t long until he got into politics and

E. Bruce Harrison: I had a rather brief three year career in reporting in Alabama and weekly newspapers, and then went to Columbus, Georgia, where I was a political reporter at a daily. I did that until I got the call to Washington from a friend who got elected to Congress and asked me if I would come to Washington to be his press secretary, which was, as they say, down south, Tall cotton for a little boy from Linette, Alabama. So I did that came to Washington, became press secretary and moved up to being his legislative assistant and finally administrative assistant, did that for a few years, then got into the political realm, did a little campaigning, political campaigning for various candidates, including the John F. Kennedy campaign of 1960 when I was on the speaking circuit in wait for it, Alabama campaigning for it, for Jack Kennedy.

Amy Westervelt: Now, you might remember one of our other madmen, Herb schertz, also worked for Kennedies campaign. He and Harrison were operating around the same time and almost certainly would have crossed paths. But so far we have no proof that such a meeting ever happened. At any rate, you can imagine that Kennedy was not the most popular candidate in Alabama in the 60s. That gig seems to have been enough to push Harrison out of politics. But of course, by this point he’d built up some contacts on the Hill and an understanding of how policy is shaped following that would end to industry.

E. Bruce Harrison: … of them went into industry, first, the chemical industry.

Amy Westervelt: Boy, did he. Harrison got a job as director of public relations for the Manufacturing Chemists Association in 1961. That organization is called the American Chemistry Council today, a year after E. Bruce joined them. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out. If you don’t know much about that book or Carson, she was a science writer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And in the years leading up to writing Silent Spring, she kept being asked to write up the results of various studies that concerned her. What she was seeing was the industrial chemicals were having a huge negative impact on the environment they were impacting wildlife to, which made Carson wonder what they may be doing to humans.

Here she is in an interview shortly after the book came out.

Rachel Carson: The public was being asked to accept these chemicals and did not have the whole picture. So I set about to remedy the balance.

Amy Westervelt: That book was a serious alarm bell. Industry was spoiling public resources, possibly harming public health, and they were doing it with impunity. Silent Spring wasn’t just some dry science book that no one read either. It was excerpted in The New Yorker for months before it came out, and it debuted as a New York Times best seller. Everyone was talking about this book in 1962. It’s often credited with launching the modern environmental movement. And it also launched E. Bruce Harrison’s career. Here’s Dr. Brulle again.

Bob Brulle: E. Bruce is the father of modern environmental public relations. Apparently, his boss walked into his office holding up a copy of Rachel Carson’s book, going its Pearl Harbor for the chemical industry. You know, and that apparently tells Bruce you’re going to get to work on this full time, get over to Dupont there, leaving me, you know, the corporate effort. And he then gets enlisted in the effort to address the issues raised by Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. And it’s out of this experience that E. Bruce Harrison develops the whole social technology of environmental public relations.

Amy Westervelt: The industry mounted an all out attack against Carson. They said her data was flawed. That as not only not a scientist, but also a woman, she’d gotten the facts wrong, that she had some sort of personal vendetta against the chemical industry because she had cancer. Of course, when government scientists did go through her data, they were able to double check all of her work and came to the same conclusions. By 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson was signing the pesticide control bill. Unfortunately, it came just months after Carson had died.

Lyndon B. Johnson?: By closing loopholes which permitted pesticides to be sold before they were fully tested, this bill safeguards out of all Americans. I’m sorry, the voice of Rachel Carson is still today. She would have been proud of this bill in this moment.

Amy Westervelt: Harrison left the chemical industry in 1969 and went to work for the mining business,

E. Bruce Harrison: I became vice president of a mining company headquartered in New York, where I was what’s now called the chief communications officer, the vise president for public relations, which was interesting for PR, not only in the U.S. but overseas, because we opened a big copper mine in Indonesia. Now I was charged with handling environmental, energy, international relations and corporate communications and opening that mine

Amy Westervelt: By this point it was the early 1970s Watergate scandal broke in 1972. The environmental and civil rights movements were in full swing and a guy with Harrison’s skills and connections was in demand for industry. E. Bruce and Patricia had gotten together by this point, too. They got married and Patricia joined E Bruce at his new PR firm, the E. Bruce Harrison Company, in 1973. Here’s Bob Brulle again.

Bob Brulle: He’s just at the right time, at the right place with the right product. Because the 60s and the 70s, corporations are really taking it on the chin from environmental groups. And here comes along a guy with answers of what do you do? And he develops these techniques and then goes on to to sell his services to a wide variety of corporations, including most of the major oil companies, The Global Climate Coalition, the Coalition for Vehicle Choice,

Amy Westervelt: The Global Climate Coalition was a coalition of companies and trade groups that came together across industries to make sure the U.S. would not partake in any sort of binding global treaty on climate change. It’s not my opinion. What they wrote down in a whole bunch of meeting notes and strategy documents that our favorite document, guy Kert Davies and the Climate Investigation Center dug up. E Bruce Harrisson and ran PR for the Global Climate Coalition from 1992 to 1996. We know how successful their efforts were because Davies and his team have also found documentation of leader meetings between the State Department and members of the Global Climate Coalition congratulating the group on their efforts. Here’s Davies.

Kert Davies: It’s a briefing memorandum for Secretary Undersecretary Dobriansky at the State Department in June of 2001. She is about to meet with members of the Global Climate Coalition and is being given talking points from a deputy of hers named Ken Brulle and states categorically that the president of the United States rejected Kyoto, in part based on input from you. She’s congratulating the GCSE members that are there, and thanking them.

Amy Westervelt: I asked Patricia Harrison if she’d had anything to do with the work her firm did for the Global Climate Coalition, and her publicist said no. But her involvement with various other groups the firm handled is documented. And overall, Patricia was very involved in running the firm alongside her husband.

Bob Brulle: Patricia Harrison is is a really interesting and quite influential person in conservative circles. You know, they all say that they were real true partners in the formation of a Bruce Harrison Inc. I mean, the thing that I find the most interesting is that in 1990, we know that Patricia Harrison was on the National Coal Board, and in 1992, the National Coal Board put out a study about, you know, coal’s image needs to be fixed. It then lays out the need for an aggressive public relations campaign to support, you know, change coal’s image. It certainly fits the pattern that was laid down by her husband, E Bruce Harrison. What the Global Climate Coalition and the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, is that we now have the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Amy Westervelt: This report that Dr. Brulle is talking about is actually from the National Coal Council, which Patricia Harrison sat on in 1992 as well. That report is where the whole idea of clean coal came from.

Clean coal ad: We’re committed to a future in which our most abundant fuel, coal generates our electricity with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean. Learn more about clean coal at America’s power, dot org.

Amy Westervelt: We know that Patricia was also involved in the National Environmental Development Association because it’s part of her official bio and a lot of places. We’ll get to her position in the George W. Bush White House in a minute, but her bio there, read, quote, As a founding partner of E. Bruce Harrison and company, among the country’s top 10 owner managed public affairs firms prior to its sale in 1996, she created and directed programs in the public interest, comprising diverse stakeholder groups, including the National Environmental Development Association, a partnership of Labour, Agriculture and industry working for better environmental solutions together.

The thing about this group, like most of the Harrison’s coalitions, is that it spawned a whole host of subgroups, too. One of them, the Clean Air Project counted Exxon-Mobile, BP, Occidental and Coke Industries as members. Another was more targeted to indoor air quality. When I saw that NIDA had an indoor air quality project, I checked the Harrison’s client list. And sure enough, like a lot of our other Mad Men this season, they were working for the oil and gas industry and the tobacco industry at the same time. They counted Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds as clients. So I went digging through the tobacco industry archive at the University of California at San Francisco. And it turns out that the National Environmental Development Association’s indoor air quality project was a tobacco industry front group. The National Environmental Development Association created the total Indoor Environmental Quality Coalition with funding from R.J. Reynolds. The PR firm and the front group share the same phone number.

We also found quite a few documents from Patricia’s own nonprofit, the National Women’s Economic Alliance Foundation, which she described as, quote, an organization that was formed to offer American women a strong, positive alternative to the National Organization of Women that hopes to spread the, quote unquote, good news about free enterprise and business from the mid 80s to about 1997.

There are several letters from Patricia Harrison to the Tobacco Institute, the main front group of the tobacco industry at the time, inviting them to be part of various programs. Asking them for money. Inviting them to various campaign events.

In 1996, the Harrisons sold their firm and Patricia decided to run for co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

Patricia Harrison: I was very interested in having a voice and I felt that the party needed to reach out to women and minorities. And that’s what I felt I could bring. And I told. I remember telling my husband, I’m going to run for co-chair. He goes, Yeah, yeah. But in the meantime, we want you to spin off. Let’s spin off part of the company because we were selling it and we both thought I’ll have an opportunity just to express my unvarnished views and that’ll be it. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum I got elected that I’m standing there thinking, oh, my goodness. Now I am this.

Amy Westervelt: Which put her right into the 2000 presidential election, having spent 25 years working with her husband to defeat environmental regulations. Patricia was no fan of Al Gore’s, who, you’ll remember, was running against George W. Bush in the election. Here she is, ripping on Gore at an event the Heritage Foundation hosted with popular conservative talk radio hosts.

Patricia Harrison: You know, there’s some sense that in Reagan, Carter, Carter won the debate, winning, meaning you’re the brightest kid in the classroom and you can memorize and spew out the telephone book. But then you’re sitting back and saying, who do I want my living room for four years? And I think, of course, I’m coming from a position of extreme prejudice. They looked at Al Gore and just I’m going to be annoyed to death.

Amy Westervelt: Meanwhile, E. Bruce is advising Retter Fenn, the giant PR firm that bought E Bruce Harrison Company. He was still actively shaping industry’s approach to environmental issues, which he called greening. And he started writing books and teaching classes on it, too. In addition to the Cross Industry Coalition thing, he grabbed onto the idea of the triple bottom line and really, really ran with it. Here’s Dr. Brulle again.

Bob Brulle: Certainly science misinformation campaigns are creating doubt about the science was certainly a part of it, but also considering about the costs of climate action and how much it’s going to cost and what it would do to, you know, our economy. And of course, by reference to that, the good life and we’re all going to be paying taxes, being cold in the dark about driving our cars. They’re going to take away our hamburgers.

Amy Westervelt: In 2001, Patricia’s run as co-chair of the Republican National Committee came to an end and she was offered a position in George W. Bush’s State Department. That’s where he grabbed that bio that I read from earlier. It’s interesting timing given what was happening with the Global Climate Coalition that year.

Here’s Kert Davies again.

Kert Davies: Yeah. So again, we’re talking about this memo that’s a briefing memorandum for Secretary Undersecretary Dobriansky. The State Department. And then it says, interested in hearing from you? What type of international alternatives to Kyoto would you support?

The reason being that they had caught so much stuff about dropping Kyoto. The Bush dumping Kyoto generated a wave of news around the world about the climate treaty. And the U.S. is leaving the climate treaty. So it actually created more press than the treaty itself. Three years earlier, four years earlier. So they needed an alternative. They knew they they’d made a mistake. There was actually a major debate inside the Bush administration between Colin Powell on one side with Christie Todd Whitman and Dick Cheney and a few others on the other side about what to do. And Christie Todd Whitman and Colin Power saying, you stay in the treaty and you move it to our needs. You don’t reject it.

Amy Westervelt: That’s fascinating, because you know who goes to work for Colin Powell right after this meeting is Patricia Harrison.

Kert Davies: Wow. I did not know that

Amy Westervelt: Patricia Harrison was named an undersecretary in the State Department in July 2001, the month after this meeting. She worked on educational and culture issues, creating and overseeing international exchange student programs and the return of the Fulbright program to Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s hard to read about that job and not think of E Bruce’s theory on what any good PR person needs to know.

E. Bruce Harrison: culture influence, things like Francis Fukuyama and how what he teaches the Johns Hopkins about what it takes to build trust and trust is built on understanding social capital in various various countries and various cultures. So understanding culture, understanding behavior only after all, we’re out to influence behavioral change.

Amy Westervelt: But it was Patricia’s next job, the one she still has, that came as a real shock. I think you’re gonna be surprised, too. We’ll bring you that right after this quick break.

OK, so last year I had the great pleasure of being a guest on the Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know podcast, highly recommended, they basically take conspiracy theories, research the crap out of them and tell you what’s what. Anyway, at the end we were chatting and one of the hosts, Matt frederich, gave me a hot tip.

Matt Frederich: Hey, Amy, this is a complete aside. If it’s cool, if you could indulge me just for one moment. When when we were doing research for the show to have you on our show, we were looking I was looking into E Bruce Harrison learning about him because it was he’s such a fascinating character. Did you happen to come across who his spouse is, Patricia DeStacy Harrison. Is that correct? Do you know what her position is right now? And maybe I’m getting this wrong. But the person, a person named Patricia DeStacy Harrison is the president and chief executive officer of the the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Amy Westervelt: I didn’t think this could possibly be true, but it is. Patricia, full name Patricia De Stacey Harrison has been the president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for 15 years. Here she is explaining what that organization does in a C-SPAN interview shortly after she got the job.

Patricia Harrison: The corporation is the steward of the federal funding for all of public television and public radio. We only represent 15 percent of that investment because these locally owned, locally operated stations raise the other 85 percent. But it’s a very important fifteen percent investment.

Interviewer: How much is that per year? Well, our budget is around 400 million.

Amy Westervelt: When the interviewer asks her about whether her role with the RNC makes her too political for a job in public media, she actually uses her time with the PR firm as proof of how apolitical she is.

Patricia Harrison: You know, every time they they write about me, it’s as if I sprung full blown out of a head of the Republican Party. I actually had a very successful business for 20 years that was nonpartisan. It was about the bottom line.

Amy Westervelt: At the time that Harrison was brought on at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There was an investigation into Ken Tomlinson, who’d been appointed chairman of the Board for the Corporation by George W. Bush. Tomlinson had been pretty open about his goal to inject more conservative viewpoints into public media. And he’d been trying to hire Harrison as part of that. Tomlinson resigned when this report came out, but Harrison stayed on in her role.

Nicholas Johnson: That that is just a horrible hole.

Amy Westervelt: This is Nicholas Nick Johnson. He was an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973, during the time when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was first formed. At the time, he was something of a crusader for the democratization of media and more public access to the airwaves.

Nicholas Johnson: I organized a picket line around the corporation broadcasting headquarters with regard to who was being appointed to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And it was turning into a corporate and establishment board. And I wanted somebody from labor unions and some housewives and some farmers and not all, you know, public figures.

Amy Westervelt: In Johnson’s opinion, Harrison’s background should have disqualified her from the position she now holds.

Nicholas Johnson: She should not have been appointed because of the appearance, regardless of how wholesome she is and regardless of how able she is to separate in her mind what she does for the public relations firm to encourage faster climate change and what she does as head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, devoted to trying to present facts on the issue.

Amy Westervelt: OK, so the person in charge of federal funding for public media worked with front groups for the fossil fuel and tobacco industries. Does it matter? Has it shifted coverage in any demonstrable way? And how do we deal with this sort of information in general, knowing that there are various forces attempting to influence the media constantly? What does the media need to do to combat that influence? Can it? These are all questions we’re going to delve into next time. Nick Johnson, we’ll be back to talk about some of the ways he’s seen media evolve. And NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen will join us to talk about what media outlets should be thinking about in our current age of disinformation. Come back for that. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.

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. The clips you heard in this episode of E. Bruce Harrison were from the Arthur W. Page Center’s Oral Histories Project. Clips of Patricia Harrison are from C-SPAN.

Drilled is 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.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.