Ketchum tackles corporate responsibility

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This article was first published as "Ketchum (the UN's PR Firm) Tackles Corporate Responsibility" by Sheldon Rampton in PR Watch, Volume 8 No 4, 4th quarter 2001. It is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Ketchum Tackles Corporate Responsibility

Like a number of leading PR firms, Ketchum has eagerly joined the bandwagon selling "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) as the best thing promising to transform the planet since--well, since the revolution. In early 2001, Ketchum joined the United Nation's Global Compact, a set of voluntary principles through which businesses pledge to support human rights, labor and the environment. Ketchum has also been a long-time member and supporter of such groups as Business for Social Responsibility.

In January 2002, the company announced the launch of an international team called "Ketchum Corporate Social Responsibility," staffed in the United States by John Paluszek, Gavin Power and Erika Gabrielsen. In London, Ketchum's CSR practice is led by Richard Aldwinckle and Yasmin Crowther; in Hong Kong, by Denise Kaufmann.

Ketchum heralded the launch of its CSR team in a news release describing corporate social responsibility as a "21st century management philosophy that advances commercial and financial success by demonstrating respect for ethical values, people, communities, and the physical and social environment." The news release also boasted of Ketchum's "decades-long tradition as an agency that believes in responsible commercial success. As far back as the 1970s, Ketchum was authoring thought pieces on the importance of socially responsible business and stakeholder relations."

Indeed it has. Here are some highlights from Ketchum's decades of "responsible commercial success":

Responsible for Smoking

In the 1970s and 1980s, Ketchum worked for the Brown & Williamson and R. J. Reynolds tobacco company. It drafted advertising copy denying the link between smoking and disease, and promoted the idea (since discredited) that B&W's low-tar cigarettes are safer than other brands.

Ketchum used the rhetoric of corporate responsibility while coordinating tobacco promotional events such as the KOOL Jazz festival. "By acquiring the name rights and sponsorship of the KOOL Jazz festival, Brown & Williamson, through KOOL cigarettes, established itself as a responsible corporate citizen in providing the financial support to continue a tradition of high quality entertainment to millions of Americans," states a 1981 Ketchum strategy document (emphasis added). In 1984, Ketchum's responsibilities at the jazz festival included serving "as troubleshooter for any sensitive issues regarding smoking and health posed by the media."

In addition to its work for B&W, a 1988 contract signed by Ketchum senior partner Lorraine Thelian shows that Ketchum also worked on a "new product PR plan" for the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. Thelian's name is noteworthy because she is a long-standing member of the board of directors of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a business-funded organization that takes pro-industry positions with respect to issues such as food safety, pesticide use and environmental health. However, ACSH has taken a strong position against the dangers of smoking.

Responsible for Unsafe Food

Ketchum has frequently turned to ACSH for help in its efforts to downplay health problems associated with its clients. In 1990, for example, ACSH president Elizabeth Whelan joined a behind-the-scenes Ketchum campaign to undermine science writer David Steinman's book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, which had offended the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) by documenting high levels of pesticides in raisins.

With coaching from Ketchum, Whelan wrote a letter to then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu warning that Steinman and others "who specialize in terrifying consumers" were "threatening the U.S. standard of living and, indeed, may pose a future threat to national security." Her letter was copied to the heads of the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Surgeon General. The USDA joined efforts at "minimizing potential public concern about issues in the book." A scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who wrote the introduction to Diet for a Poisoned Planet, was pressured to withdraw his name from the book and later fired.

Details of the Ketchum campaign against Steinman surfaced when a whistleblower leaked documents including an internal memo by Betsy Gullickson, a Ketchum senior vice president. In the memo, Gullickson plotted to obtain a prepublication copy of the book manuscript and a schedule of Steinman's upcoming book promotional activities "so that we can 'shadow' Steinman's appearances." Ketchum operatives telephoned talk shows that were planning to interview Steinman, depicting him as an "off-the-wall extremist without credibility" and attempting to persuade the programs to cancel the interviews altogether.

Ketchum has represented many clients in the food industry, including the California Almond Board, Dole Foods, H.J. Heinz, Kikkoman, Miller Brewing, the National Meat & Livestock Commission, Nestlé, Oscar Mayer Foods, the Potato Board, Stouffer's, and Wendy's restaurants. On behalf of the California Prune Board, it renamed prunes as "dried plums," the name by which you are likely to find them in the supermarket today. Ketchum also designed the Beef Industry Council's 1985 "Beef Gives Strength" advertising campaign, which deceptively portrays beef as a health food while ignoring the fat content of most red meats.

In 1992, Ketchum and the American Egg Board sponsored a seminar for health writers, titled " Risk Communication: Challenge for the 1990s," which attempted to downplay the risks from cholesterol in eggs (whose yolks add more cholesterol to the average American's diet than any other single food). The seminar included a report describing an 88-year-old man who had eaten 25 eggs daily for more than a decade and had a normal blood cholesterol level.

Responsible for Toxins

Ketchum's Washington office, where Lorraine Thelian works, handles most of the firm's "environmental PR work" on behalf of clients including the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Aspirin Foundation of America, Bristol Myers Squibb, the Consumer Aerosol Products Council, Dow Chemical, the National Pharmaceutical Council, the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, and the American Industrial Health Council, an industry-funded group that lobbies against what it considers "excessive" regulation of carcinogens. Ketchum boasts that the D.C. office "has dealt with issues ranging from regulation of toxins, global climate change, electricity deregulation, nuclear energy, product and chemical contamination, and agricultural chemicals and Superfund sites, to name but a few."

In 1991, Ketchum was embarrassed by a whistleblower who faxed to Greenpeace a copy of the PR firm's "crisis management plan" prepared for the Clorox Company to counter situations in which Clorox might come under fire from environmental groups. The plan recommended labelling environmental critics as "terrorists," threatening to sue "unalterably green" journalists, and sending "scientific ambassadors" on media tours to counteract bad publicity.

In 1994, Ketchum's D.C. office worked on behalf of Dow and the Chlorine Chemistry Council to round up scientists who would challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's report on the health effects of dioxin. Even before the report was released, Ketchum swung into action with a thirty-city PR blitz designed to undercut press coverage for the EPA report. "We identified a number of independent scientists and took them on the road" to meet with journalists, academics, political leaders and local health officials, said Mark Schannon, an associate director of Ketchum's Washington office. "Basically what we're trying to do is assure that industry's voice is heard by people who make policy decisions both here and around the country," Schannon said.

Responsible for Lawsuits

In addition to its "corporate social responsibility" division, Ketchum also has a division that specialize in "litigation communications" (helping corporations when they get sued). The litigation division is headed by Karen Doyne, who has managed mass-tort battles over silicone breast implants, diet drugs, antitrust allegations and civil rights. Ketchum also has a "workplace communications practice" (a euphemism for union-busting).

In December 2001, Ketchum hired former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari as CEO and head of The Washington Group, its lobby shop that has done work for clients including Boeing, Bridgestone/Firestone (famous for its disintegrating tires), Kodak, Microsoft, and the E-Fairness Coalition (which represents retail outlets including Wal-Mart in their campaign to ensure that internet vendors like pay the same taxes as bricks-and-mortar outlets).

Molinari also serves as the figurehead for another Ketchum client, Americans for Consumer Education and Competition (ACEC), a front group created to defend the Visa credit card company when it became the target of a U.S. Justice Department antitrust lawsuit in the spring and summer of 2000. Molinari sent around an op-ed piece to U.S. newspapers, claiming that "we could all be spending more for credit card transactions" if the lawsuit succeeded. Left unstated was the fact that Molinari was a registered lobbyist for ACEC (which had been created a month before the trial), and that its sole funder was Visa.

Other Ketchum clients have included the Christian Children's Fund, Consolidated Gas System, Pittsburgh Paints, Tappan, and Westinghouse. The Arthur Andersen accounting firm was a Ketchum client until the Enron crisis hit, at which point Andersen dropped Ketchum and switched to crisis expert Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter.

Ketchum has also worked for pharmaceutical companies, for whom it helped defeat a plan floated by the Clinton administration for universal purchasing of vaccines for children. "The issue is not universal purchase, but education: finding ways of persuading more parents to get their children vaccinated," rationalized Ketchum's Lorraine Thelian--as though the cost of vaccines has nothing to do with parents' decisions.