Liquid Truth: Advice from the Spinmeisters

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This article was first published as "Liquid Truth: Advice from the Spinmeisters", PR Watch, Volume 7, No. 4, Fourth Quarter 2004. and later used in Trust Us, We're Experts: Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future. The original article was authored by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Losing words

In 1992, the food industry's International Food Information Council (IFIC) retained Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille, "an international market research expert," to research "how Americans relate to food biotechnology and genetic engineering." IFIC, an ardent enthusiast for the use of biotechnology in agriculture, wanted to know how it could overcome consumer apprehensions about the new technology.

A "core team" was assembled to aid in the research, consisting of representatives from the Monsanto Agricultural Company, NutraSweet, Kraft General Foods, Ajinomoto, Du Pont and Calgene. Other research sponsors included Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and the M&M/Mars candy company. The goal of the research team was to "develop actionable strategies, messages, and language that will express information positively about the process and products--without stirring fears or negative connotations."

Dr. Rapaille is a Jungian psychologist who uses a technique that he calls "Archetype Studies" which claims to delve into the "primordial cause for ... opinions, attitudes or motivations." As his report to IFIC explained, "For each element in the world, there is a first meaningful experience called the Imprinting Moment. The Archetype is the pattern which underlies this Imprinting Moment. The Archetype is completely preordained by the culture, and it is common to everyone in a given culture. ... The Archetype is the Logic of Emotion that forms the Collective Unconscious." Discover these Archetypes, Rapaille's theory promised, and "You can 'read' the consumers like a book, and you can understand their unconscious 'logic.'"

Rapaille's process for uncovering Archetypes was similar in most respects to what another advertising or PR person might term a "focus group," but Rapaille liked to refer to them as "Imprinting Groups." Each group consisted of 20-30 everyday Americans, which Rapaille's team of "Archetypologists" led through a series of "relaxation exercises and visualization" aimed at eliciting their innermost feelings about biotechnology.

The result of these exercises, the team concluded, was that the biotech industry stood at a crossroads. "In one case, we have tremendous public support--we can be viewed as farmers bringing new varieties and improved foods to consumers. But if we do not position ourselves and our products correctly, we can just as easily be viewed in the same class as Hitler and Frankenstein."

The difference depended on which "imprint" provided the Archetype for public perception of the new foods. And the public would choose its Archetype based largely on the food industry's choice of words.

"In communicating about food biotechnology and genetic engineering, we now know a variety of 'trigger' words that will help consumers view these products in the same vein as farming, hybrids, and the natural order, rather than as Frankenfoods," the study concluded. In the category of "words to use," Rapaille suggested terms such as beauty, bounty, children, choices, cross-breeding, diversity, earth, farmer, flowers, fruits, future generations, hard work, heritage, improved, organic, purity, quality, soil, tradition and wholesome.

"Words to lose" included: biotechnology, chemical, DNA, economic, experiments, industry, laboratory, machines, manipulate, money, pesticides, profit, radiation, safety and scientists.

In a memo accompanying the completed study, IFIC's Libby Mikesell and Tom Stenzel summarized the lessons learned. "The technology in biotechnology has 'scary' overtones in connection with life in any form. … Biotechnology may not be the optimal term to use in our discussions," they wrote. "Clotaire recommends that we 'sandwich' the word genetic between other words that create an association with tradition and nature. Some possible terms he suggested were 'biogenetic gardening,' 'natural genetics' or 'natural genetic gardening.' He composed this sentence as an example of how to use the terms: New genetic discoveries allow us to be successful gardeners of the 21st century and to accomplish cross-breeding at a highly sophisticated level, fulfilling a vision of the gardeners of the 19th century."

It is worth noting that many of the terms in Rapaille's list of "words to lose" are straightforward characterizations of the actual scientific process used in developing genetically engineered foods, while many of the "words to use" are vague, pleasant-sounding euphemisms, designed to obscure the details about everything that is new and unique about the process: they are doublespeak.

It is also worth noting the irony in IFIC's choice of someone like Rapaille to help design its strategy for defending biotech foods. Whatever dangers biotechnology may or may not present to the public, it is undeniably an example of modern science in action. When talking among themselves, biotech's promoters frequently invoke the name of science, characterizing their opponents as irrational, fear-driven technophobes.

"We all are frustrated by the public's emotional response to scientific, factual issues," stated the IFIC report. Yet Rapaille's advice to IFIC was not only calculated to evoke an emotional response and to avoid any mention of science, his very methodology for arriving at his analysis is at best a parody of the scientific method.

Hard Science and Fluid Truth

The power that science wields in modern society is a reflection of its ability to create knowledge that is as close to infallible as any product of human endeavor. Reasonable people may disagree in their opinions about Shakespeare or religion, but they do not disagree with the laws of thermodynamics. This is because the theories of science, especially the hard sciences, have been developed through methodologies that require verification by multiple, independent researchers using clearly defined, replicable experiments. If the experiments do not bear out a hypothesis, the hypothesis must be rejected or modified.

The very prestige that science enjoys, however, has also given rise to a variety of scientific pretenders--disciplines such as phrenology or eugenics that merely claim to be scientific. The great philosopher of science Karl Popper gave a great deal of consideration to this problem and coined the term "pseudoscience" to help separate the wheat from the chaff. The difference between science and pseudoscience, he concluded, is that genuinely scientific theories are "falsifiable,"--i.e., they are formulated in such a way that if they are wrong, they can be proven false through experiments. By contrast, pseudosciences are formulated so vaguely that they can never be proven or disproven.

"The difference between a science and a pseudoscience is that scientific statements can be proved wrong and pseudoscientific statements cannot," says Robert Youngson in his book, Scientific Blunders: A Brief History of How Wrong Scientists Can Sometimes Be. "By this criterion you will find that a surprising number of seemingly scientific assertions--perhaps even many in which you devoutly believe--are complete nonsense. Rather surprisingly this is not to assert that all pseudoscientific claims are untrue. Some of them may be true, but you can never know this, so they are not entitled to claim the cast-iron assurance and reliance that you can have, and place, in scientific facts."

Judged by this standard, many of the "social sciences" --including the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and others--are actually pseudosciences rather than the real thing. This does not mean that Freud and Jung were charlatans or fools. Both were creative thinkers with fascinating insights into the human psyche, but a research methodology that derives its data from the dreams of mentally ill patients is a far cry from the orderly system of measurements that we associate with hard sciences like physics and chemistry.

Regardless of their scientific limitations, theories of human psychology figure prominently in the thinking of the public relations industry. What is more important than their actual effectiveness is the seemingly authoritative justification that they provide for the PR worldview--a belief that people are fundamentally irrational and that therefore a class of behind-the-scenes manipulators is necessary to shape opinion for the public's own good. But this belief is at odds not only with the ideals of democracy but also with the fundamental and necessary ideological underpinnings of the scientific method itself. Before scientists can reach any conclusions whatsoever about the elements in the periodic table or the space-time continuum, they have to first believe that "the truth is out there" and that their investigations will take them closer to it.

The public relations worldview, however, envisions truth as an infinitely malleable, spinnable thing. For consultants like Clotaire Rapaille, the truth is not a thing to be discovered but a thing to be created, through artful word choices and careful arrangement of appearances.

"Given a choice, do you serve your client or the truth?" a reporter asked John Scanlon, one of today's leading spinmeisters, during a 1991 interview.

"You always try--you always serve the truth," Scanlon replied. "But again--but the truth is often, you know, is often not necessarily a solid. It can be a liquid. . . . What seems to be true is not necessarily the case when we look at it and we dissect it and take it apart, and we turn it around and we look at it from a different perspective. . . . Whose truth are we talking about, your truth or my truth?"

John Scanlon specializes in representing high-profile clients, especially clients embroiled in controversy. In 1997, the trade publication Inside PR ranked him as the number two expert in the world at "crisis management"--the PR field that specializes in helping clients fend off scandals and repair bad reputations. In 1999, for example, he represented famed fellatrix and self-proclaimed liar Monica Lewinsky as she embarked on a media tour to promote her book, Monica's Story. Lewinsky too, it seems, had a version of the truth to tell, as did the president whose sexual relationship with her depended on what your definition of "is" is.

Scanlon's other assignments have included PR for CBS when it was sued for libel by Vietnam-era general William Westmoreland. Later, he squared off against 60 Minutes when he went to work for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in its effort to discredit tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, whose story was dramatized in the recent movie, The Insider. Scanlon also represented Ivana Trump during her divorce from The Donald. "What we did was quite scientific," he said. By "scientific," however, he meant something quite different from what a particle physicist would mean. "I mean we sat down with Mrs. Trump, with Ivana early on with her attorneys and talked about what was the specific critical message that she wanted to communicate. I mean, we had a very, very clear position." But having a "very, very clear position" is an entirely different thing than seeking the truth, which is what an actual scientist would be doing.

It would be nice to imagine that Scanlon's fluid attitude toward the truth is some kind of aberration, but it is not. Richard Edelman, his one-time boss at Edelman Worldwide, goes even further. Not only are there different versions of the truth, "In this era of exploding media technologies," Edelman says, "there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself."

One of the rules of PR is that spin cannot be a demonstrable lie, a point driven home in every PR textbook. "Never lie to a reporter" has become an industry mantra. Fortunately, there is a loophole. Spin is the art of appearances, not substance. When there is no truth except what you create for yourself, lies become unnecessary, even irrelevant. To lie is to respect reality enough to falsify it. The practitioners of public relations do not falsify the truth, because they do not believe that it even exists.

Bambi Killers

The PR industry's preoccupation with imagery over substance was evident again in its reaction to the May 1999 release of a Cornell University study showing that pollen from Monsanto's genetically-engineered Bt corn could drift onto milkweed plants and poison Monarch butterflies.

The Monarch is "sort of the Bambi of the insect world," according to Marlin Rice, a professor of entomology at Iowa State University in Ames. "It's big and gawdy and gets a lot of good press. And you've got school kids all across the country raising them in jars." The Bt-Monarch controversy came on the heels of other recent studies showing that Bt crops kill non-target beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs, kill beneficial soil microorganisms, damage soil fertility, and may harm insect-eating birds. However, it was the image problems associated with killing Bambi that sent industry spokespersons scurrying to counter the damage. Discoveries like this could end consumer complacency "in an instant," worried one source quoted in PR Week, which described the Cornell study as "a wake-up call" for industry.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of PR Week's response to the Monarch butterfly study is the narrow range of options that it considered possible for the public relations industry. "Are we only limited to a defensive role in talking about GE foods?" it asked, answering that PR pros can also make a positive case by arguing that biotechnology is "needed to adequately feed a growing world population." The choice, in other words, was between playing defense or offense for the biotech team.

"The law of unintended consequences means studies like the butterfly study are likely to surface, focusing on something company researchers may never have considered," PR Week admitted, but rather than take such "unintended consequences" seriously, it advised public relations professionals to treat them as "brush fires" to be "quickly dealt with."