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The Corporate PR Industry's Sneaky War On Internet Activism

By Tasmin Cave and Andy Rowell

Image by Cei Willis

The internet may be great for you, what with its movshare links and fascinating "Which Neighbours character are you?" quizzes, but spare a thought for those poor souls in the corporate PR and lobbying game. These lobbyists get paid fat wads of cash by some of the worst people in the world to make sure that governments see things their way. In the old days, these champions of murderous dictators and big polluters were able to talk politicians round to their way of thinking over boozy lunches in opulent private members' clubs. Nowadays, they're forced to do the devil's work in the harsh glow of a laptop screen, rather than the more persuasive atmospheres created by soothing candlelight and expensive whiskey.

In the world of Twitter heckling, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”) and online petitions that are capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours, the lobbying game has changed. One prominent commercial lobbyist is James Bethell, whose firm Westbourne Communications are in the business of defending against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners ("insurgency" here meaning "having a negative opinion and a blog/Twitter account" rather than guerrilla warfare). Among their current clients are the fracking firm Cuadrilla, which has been trying to convince people in Lancashire and Sussex to really get behind the idea of pumping a load of poisonous water under their houses. Westbourne also led the campaign to defend HS2 from communities who'd rather there weren't trains roaring past their homes at 125mph. Whether it's a new runway, a drilling license, or a £43bn rail link, you need government approval – which means hiring a firm like Westbourne to keep a lid on protest.

Unfortunately for lobbyists, “Now, almost everyone in the country has become a self-appointed campaigner,” as Bethell said in an interview for Radio 4 in 2011. “Everybody's seen The West Wing and has a Google account, and therefore has both the intelligence and the strategy, plus the technology, to put together a kitchen table campaign."

So, how do you go about fighting this scourge of democratic, grassroots activism?

“You’ve got to fight them on every street corner,” advises Bethell. “You can’t just sit and watch your opponents run around doing what they like. You’ve got to get out into the bush, using their tactics and being in their face.”

If we’re sticking with the over the top military analogies, it's obvious that the internet is a crucial battleground. It's actually a useful tool for lobbyists when it comes to them finding out who they're up against. While their surveillance techniques might not be in the league of GCHQ, corporate monitoring of citizen-activists has been an enduring tactic and there's been a significant amount of investment in this area. Today, commercial lobbyists operate sophisticated monitoring systems designed to spot online threats. It means that it you bad-mouth a large corporation in 140 characters, chances are they will find it. Their job then is to sift through the sea of online malcontents and find the "influencers".

“The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one,” Mike Seymour, former head of crisis management at PR and lobbying giant, Edelman, told fellow PRs attending a conference across the road from Parliament in November 2011. “You’ve got to find the influential one, especially if they are gatherers of people against us.” His point was eloquently made by events across town. As he spoke, Occupy protests were creating headlines around the world. Seymour explained that, once these influencers are identified, "listening posts" are put out there, to “pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity.

Once they have this intelligence, lobbyists can get to work. Part of Westbourne’s response to its HS2 critics was to “zero in” and counter “inconsistent” press reports, as Bethell explained to high-speed advocates in the US. More broadly, Westbourne advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy”; to “shit them up”, as he explained to an audience of distinguished guests at a conference in 2012. Westbourne engages in aggressive rebuttal campaigns, which involves creating a feeling among opponents that everything they say will be picked apart. This is an “exhausting, but crucial” part of successful lobbying, says Bethell.

Being an online Malcolm Tucker is one thing, but it is generally accepted among lobbyists that the only way to combat activists’ “negative information” online is with positive information. This is not as nice as it sounds.

Reputation Changer Demo from Simplifilm on Vimeo.

There are now hundreds of companies offering to manipulate Google searches to make finding critical content all but impossible. A promotional video for one such company, Reputation Changer, promises to make negative content “disappear”. This is done by creating new, positive content that fools search engines into pushing the “dummy” content above the negative, driving the output of critics down the Google rankings (relying on the fact that few of us regularly click beyond the first page of results).

BP, for example, was found to have been manipulating Google in the wake of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What BP appears to have been attempting was to get its message, which was “Learn more about how BP is helping”, at the top of Google searches relating to the spill. NGOs and affected communities with much smaller pockets were therefore blocked from getting their message of, “Look how badly BP has fucked us,” across.

Lobbying agencies are in the search engine optimisation business, too. They will create phoney blogs for clients, which are made to appear as if they've been created independently of the client. Press releases are pumped out that no journalist will see, just so there’s something else to read on Google when a client faces hostility. “Online, you should constantly be coming up with new content that can help push negative information down,” a lobbyist from global agency Burson-Marsteller advised colleagues in 2013, during a debate on winning the “kitchen table conversation”. “Of course we do it as well,” says Bell Pottinger chief, veteran lobbyist and master at killing stories, Tim Bell in interview. “Everybody wants the best information to appear at the top of the page.”

Another favoured technique of lobbyists is the doctoring of Wikipedia, a site that is widely loathed in the industry for its phenomenal reach and for the fact that a tiny community of editors is able to decide whether a corporation has a "Controversies" section on their wiki or not. “A ridiculous organisation . . . created by a bunch of nerds,” is Tim Bell’s take, whose firm of lobbyists has been busier than most on Wikipedia. Accounts associated with Bell Pottinger were caught scrubbing the profiles of, among many others, the arms manufacturer and client The Paramount Group, at least two large financial firms and the founder of libel specialists Carter-Ruck.

“It's important for Wikipedia to recognise we are a valuable source for accurate information,” Bell told PR Week. This from someone whose company has famously spun the reputations of dictators, repressive governments, polluting oil firms and arms companies on bribery charges, as well as winning a contract from the US-supported administration in Iraq to promote the concept of democracy.

Attempts by lobbyists to manage information, such as these, are nothing new. What has changed is the sophistication of the technology and the new tactics this affords them, like the creation of fake blogs, or online "front" groups. The reach of so-called "astroturf" campaigns – where lobbyists manufacture fake grassroots support – is also magnified over the web.

According to another of Britain’s leading lobbyists, Tory peer Peter Gummer, lobbyists are on a quest to make the digital space their own. He assured delegates of the 20th Public Relations World Congress in Dubai in 2012: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. This is our moment.”

Tasmin Cave and Andy Rowell wrote a whole book about this kind of thing. It's called A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain and is published by Bodley Head. You can buy it here.

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