Endangered Wildlife Friends Are Here!

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This article was first published as "Endangered Wildlife Friends Are Here!", PR Watch, volume 1, number 3, Third Quarter 1994. The original article was authored by John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

I recently stopped at a BP/Amoco gas station near the office of PR Watch. The gas pumps were gaily adorned with colorful posters featuring stuffed toy timber wolves, golden frogs, elephants, spotted leopards and panda bears. "Endangered wildlife friends are here!" the poster proclaimed. "Collect All 5--Only $2.99." The posters carried the logo of Amoco at the top. Beneath a picture of the spotted leopard, the logo of the National Wildlife Federation accompanied text explaining that sale of the stuffed animals would help raise funds for the NWF.

Inside I found the stuffed toys, bagged in plastic and labeled "made in China." When I asked the cashier, he said they weren't moving too well. He pointed to a corner display where they had marked the price down from $2.99 to $1.99, "just to get rid of them."

Stuffed toys and 'partnerships'

In February 2001, journalist Michelle Cole reported that the National Wildlife Federation had formed a "partnership" with BP/Amoco. NWF gladly accepts corporate donations, and Cole noted that it has also "partnered with some businesses with which other environmental groups would not want to be associated. As a part of a special promotion, customers who purchased at least eight gallons at BP/Amoco gas stations could also get stuffed toys, 'Endangered Wildlife Friends,' tagged with the National Wildlife Federation logo and bearing the message that fossil fuel consumption contributes to global climate change. ... Marketing experts refer to this type of activity as 'branding.' Or, roughly translated, the lengths to which businesses, organizations and some individuals will go to burn a favorable image into the public's minds and hearts and to be distinctly remembered for it."

When Cole interviewed NWF's Vice President of Communications, Philip B. Kavits, he declined to say how much money his group had received from BP/Amoco, and he defended the partnering because it helped NWF "reach a new audience." I called Kavits myself in late July, and this time he was a bit more forthcoming. "The latest figure is $113,000," he said when I asked him about the money. Kavits admitted that the NWF has no measurable evidence that peddling plastic stuffed animals from gas stations really contributes in any way to public education on the issue of global warming, but he asserted that "large numbers of people did go to our website where they found more information."

I asked if the "made in China" logo meant that the stuffed animals were made in sweatshops. Kavits said he didn't know. He also said that NWF's partnership with BP/Amoco did not imply an endorsement.

"BP is one of a huge number of partners that we've dealt with," Kavits said. "This is a small one compared with others we've done. All of Dannon's yogurt containers for years carried fun facts. It really got kids attuned, hopefully, to what's out there in the world. ... It's a two-way relationship. NWF gets revenue out of it. ... In return, hopefully these companies get a chance to showcase their concern." In any case, Kavits asserted, the promotional arrangement with BP/Amoco "ended in February."

Perhaps it had ended in the minds of NWF, but at the BP/Amoco station I visited, the promotion was still being hyped in September, half a year later.

I conducted an unscientific survey of one customer who agreed with me that having wildlife posters from the National Wildlife Federation on the pump did sound like an endorsement. She was in a hurry, however, and didn't have much time to talk with me. She paid her bill and drove off in her giant SUV, minus the stuffed toy and without any apologies or evident concern about its gas-guzzling, climate-destroying engine.

Pieces of Silver

The $113,000 that NWF has received from BP/Amoco is pocket change for a company that spends millions of dollars on PR and advertising to create the impression that it cares for the environment more than, say, Exxon. From the company's point of view, being able to decorate its pumps with NWF posters for this price is an incredible marketing coup.

BP/Amoco has been carefully positioning itself as a good guy in the fossil fuel industry. It was one of the first oil companies to break publicly with the Global Climate Coalition, the industry's front group on the issue of global warming. It has even tried changing its name, claiming that "BP" stands for "Beyond Petroleum" instead of British Petroleum. Now that the Bush administration plans to allow oil extraction in the Alaska National Wildlife Preserve, however, BP/Amoco finds itself on the horns of a PR dilemma. Like other oil companies, it stands to make a bundle of money by drilling there, even though the preserve is home to some real "wildlife friends," not just stuffed animals. Like the rest of the oil industry, BP knows very well that it is not really "beyond petroleum," and when this kind of business opportunity comes its way, good-guy rhetoric quickly falls by the wayside.

This contradiction is merely a minor PR dilemma for the spinmeisters employed by BP/Amoco, whose ranks include Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, MSI Strategic Communications and BSMG Worldwide.

For the National Wildlife Federation, however, it ought to be a major embarrassment. If it is, though, Kavits give no such indication when I interviewed him.

The Other Dialogue

This cozy collegiality between traditional opponents contrasts markedly with the other setting where activists and businesses are colliding--the pitched street battles that have taken place in Seattle, Genoa and other cities where protesters have gathered to challenge globalization and raise issues of economic and ecological sustainability. For PR firms that traffic in "crisis management," the protests have provided a convenient marketing hook as they seek to sell their services to nervous corporations.

The latest wrinkle on this strategy of co-optation has seen the environmental movement's own executives and PR advisors taking six-figure jobs with major PR firms. Other eco-warriors are coming in from the cold to set up their own lucrative consulting companies, trading on their connections to seduce ex-colleagues at non-profits into joining the partnership bandwagon. Former Greenpeace head Paul Gilding is now a corporate consultant in Australia. Thomas Friedman, a leading advocate of corporate globalization, now touts Gilding as the effective cutting edge of environmental change.

Immediately after the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting was shut down by thousands of demonstrators, the Burson-Marsteller firm sent a letter to corporate executives, trolling for clients by promising that it was familiar with the groups responsible for the protests. In the two years since Seattle, all of the leading international PR firms have jumped in to hype their own capabilities.

Edelman PR tells clients that activists are winning because "they play offense all the time; they take their message to the consumer; they are ingenious at building coalitions; they always have a clear agenda; they move at Internet speed; they speak in the media's tone."

To answer the activist threat, Edelman is promoting still more partnerships. "Our experience to date is positive," they say, citing examples such as "Chiquita-Rainforest Alliance" and "Home Depot-Forest Stewardship Council."

With Friends Like These...

Some people, myself included, would call Ron Duchin a "spy." His crisis management PR firm, Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MBD), specializes in gathering military-style intelligence. The "enemies" it spies on, however, are not foreign governments. His enemies are the thousands of activist organizations around the world that seek in various ways to change the behavior of mining, chemical, nuclear, tobacco and other industries.

MBD specializes in developing strategies that isolate and marginalize the activists they consider "radicals" by engineering divisions between radicals and the "realists" within their movement. The "realists" are typically mainstream organizations willing to accept industry money and enter into supposed "win-win" agreements that both they and their corporate partners can tout in the press as progress.

Last September 7, 2000, Duchin was surrounded by the sort of realists he likes at a snazzy banquet event held in Washington's National Press Club. The occasion was the Sixteenth Annual Conservation Community Awards, sponsored by a group that few environmentalists have ever heard of, the Natural Resources Council of America. Duchin, the anti-environmentalist spy, served on the official banquet committee with his friend Patrick F. Noonan and other notables including William K. Reilly, a Monsanto board member and former head of George Bush Sr.'s Environmental Protection Agency.

Beyond well-heeled schmoozing, the purpose of the event was to dispense official awards to many of the mainstream environmental groups in attendance, including the Wilderness Society, the Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Share and the National Wildlife Federation. Financial support was provided by a host of corporate "benefactors, patrons and contributors" including AT&T; E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company; International Paper; Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.; Toyota Motor Company, USA; American Forest & Paper Association; Eastman Kodak; Rolex Watch USA, Inc.; Bank of America; Cargill Incorporated; Johnson & Johnson; Lucent Technologies and Procter & Gamble.

Sitting at Table 23, Ron Duchin had reason to look like the cat that just swallowed the canary. "If PR Watch knew we were here, they would freak," he remarked to his entourage, not realizing that he was within earshot of another attendee who was familiar with Duchin's role as an anti-environmental strategist.

Unlike the rest of the minglers, Duchin primarily kept to himself, talking with his assistants. Indeed, his presence and the event itself would certainly "freak" many among the thousands of environmental activists who labor in a variety of campaigns against Duchin's corporate clients.

What about the large environmental groups with multi-million dollar budgets attending the dinner? No one I contacted afterwards from any of these groups admitted knowing much about Duchin. If they recognized his name at all, they said they only knew him as a friend of someone else, and no doubt this is the way Duchin wants it. Perhaps the environmental "realists" in these organizations also prefer not knowing much about their corporate partners.