Spin Doctors Have Shaped the Environmental Debate for DecadesRoundup
tags: environmental history, corporations, Rachel Carson, Denialism, Public Relations
Melissa Aronczyk teaches media and politics at Rutgers University. She is the author, with Maria I. Espinoza, of the forthcoming A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism.
The turbulent waters of strategic political communication lost one of its beacons, E. Bruce Harrison, in January. Unfortunately, D.C. strategists didn’t see the light for the fog — or is that smog? — obscuring their view.
In his public relations work for hundreds of clients in Washington, across the nation and overseas, Harrison shaped the industry’s response to mounting concerns about the state of the natural environment and the need to take steps to protect it. Through his popular books and magazine columns, his close ties in the media and on Capitol Hill and his extensive network of franchises in the United States, Europe and Mexico, Harrison taught a generation of companies how to “go green” and embrace sustainable solutions to environmental problems.
That Harrison’s passing escaped the public eye says legions about both the public relations profession and the particular legacy that he left.
Over the course of his decades-long career in “green” public relations, Harrison was behind PR campaigns for some of the biggest environmental polluters of the 20th century — from General Motors to Monsanto to BP America. He also helped shape PR standards, reaching key audiences in an increasingly complex media ecosystem. From the early 1960s through the end of the 1990s, Harrison’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers set the terms of engagement for business leaders and elected officials forced to confront and grapple with environmental problems.
Americans have long known about environmental damage caused by industrial pollution. The 1961 publication of “Silent Spring,” science writer Rachel Carson’s exposé of the toxic hazards of pesticides, galvanized a shocked public to call for immediate action. “Silent Spring” fomented a groundswell of public reform aimed at reclaiming the rights of citizens to a safe, clean and healthy environment.
“Silent Spring” drove industries to react as well. For Harrison, who was head of PR at the chemical trade association put it at the time, this was Pearl Harbor for his people. The scale and scope of the PR response was unprecedented. The chemical and agribusiness industries threw themselves into the attack, preparing fiery negative book reviews, newsletter mailings, TV appearances by “expert” scientists and letters to news editors questioning the legitimacy of the book and its author.
The countercampaign backfired. The intensive media attention to the book brought its concerns into the White House and a deeply sympathetic Kennedy administration. Concern over environmental hazards only accelerated throughout the decade, colored by the thalidomide tragedy in Europe and punctuated by a massive oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Under President Richard Nixon, a flurry of environmental laws passed: the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969; the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970; and key amendments to strengthen the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in 1972. Together, these laws underscored the waning power of corporate interests to dominate the environmental conversation.
This was where Harrison stepped in. The industry’s failure to avoid reform through antagonism taught Harrison an important lesson, one that guided his political strategies for the rest of his career. In the clamor for change, chief executives’ hand-wringing over the “burden” of government regulation on business seemed increasingly tone deaf. It was not opposition but compromise that would win the day for his clients’ brand of American environmentalism.