The Corporate PR Industry's Sneaky War on Internet Activism
Meet the people using social media and Wikipedia to spread misinformation.
Illustration by Cei Willis
The internet may be great for you, what with its Movshare links and fascinating "Which Game of Thrones character are you?" quizzes, but please spare a moment to think about those poor souls in the corporate PR and lobbying game, the flacks who 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 recent years, the lobbying game has changed thanks to social media websites, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”), and online petitions capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours. Among the lobbyists affected by this shift is James Bethell, whose firm, Westbourne Communications, is in the business of fighting back against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners ("insurgency" here meaning "having a negative opinion and a blog/Twitter account" rather than actual guerrilla warfare). Their current clients include the oil and gas company Cuadrilla, the frackers who have been trying to convince people in Lancashire and Sussex to get behind the idea of pumping a load of poisonous water under their houses. Westbourne also led the campaign to defend HS2, a propsed high-speed rail line, from English communities who'd rather there weren't trains roaring past their homes at 125 MPH. When you're trying to get a $60 billion railway expansion, you need approval from the UK government—which means hiring a firm like Westbourne to keep a lid on protests.
Unfortunately for lobbyists, “Now almost everyone in the country has become a self-appointed campaigner,” as Bethell said in a 2011 interview. “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,” advised 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 also 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 the NSA, corporate monitoring of citizen-activists has become a common 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 you bad-mouth a large corporation in 140 characters, chances are the corporation's social media people 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, the former head of crisis management at PR and lobbying giant Edelman, told fellow flacks attending a conference across the road from UK 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 happening across town—as he spoke, Occupy protests were creating headlines around the world. Seymour explained that once these influencers are identified, "listening posts" should be put out there, to “pick up the first warning signals” of activist operations.
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 rail advocates in the US. More broadly, Westbourne advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy”—to “shut 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.
That kind of nastiness is necessary, but it is also generally accepted in lobbyist circles that the only way to combat activists’ “negative information” online is with positive information. This is not as nice as it sounds.
There are now hundreds of companies offering to manipulate Google search results to make finding negative information about them all but impossible. A promotional video for one such company, Reputation Changer, promises to make criticism “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 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—the company appears to have been attempting to get its message (“Learn more about how BP is helping”) at the top of Google searches relating to the spill. NGOs and affected communities without the resources of the oil giant were therefore blocked from getting their message (“Look how badly BP has fucked us”) across.
Lobbying firms are in the search engine optimization business too. They will create phony blogs for clients that are made to appear as if they've been created by outsiders. Press releases that no journalist will ever see are pumped out 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,” said Tim Bell, the head of PR firm Bell Pottinger and a master at killing stories, in interview. “Everybody wants the best information to appear at the top of the page.”
Another favored 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 organization... created by a bunch of nerds,” is Tim Bell’s take on the site. 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 recognize we are a valuable source for accurate information,” Bell told PR Week. This someone whose company has famously spun the reputations of dictators, repressive governments, polluting oil firms, and arms companies facing bribery charges—it even won a contract from the US-supported government in Iraq to promote the concept of democracy.
Attempts by lobbyists to manage information like this are nothing new. What has changed is the sophistication of the technology, which has given PR firms and others a host of new tactics, like fake blogs and online "front" groups. The reach of so-called "astroturf" campaigns—where lobbyists manufacture fake grassroots support—is also magnified thanks to the web.
According to another of Britain’s leading lobbyists, 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.”
Tamasin 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. You can buy it here.