Oregonian opens curtains on devious PR behavior

This is the kind of press report that drives me buggy. The Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes, on Oregonlive pulls the curtain on the horrible goings on an Oregon PR firm that dares to help a chemical company defend its product.

First, let me be clear. I don’t know whether the accusations against atrazine are legit or not and I am certainly not involved in this controversy in any way. I have no dog in this hunt.

According to Mapes the PR firm “has come under scrutiny” for its role in defending the herbicide atrazine which is being criticized as a public health threat. What is this scrutiny? Is the scrutiny anything beyond that which the Oregonian itself is doing? The role of the PR firm was unveiled, as if a deeply held secret, by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch. The subtitle of this site, prwatch.org is “reporting on spin and disinformation since 1993.” I’m just hazarding a wild guess here but any PR firm that shows up on that site is going to be judged guilty of spin and disinformation automatically. I get the impression that anyone advocating a position in opposition to the beliefs of the “Center” is going to be accused of deviousness and dishonesty. But, never mind that, says Mapes. These people uncovered the dirt.

The article from this completely unbiased source identified the work the PR folks did in looking into who the reporter on Huffington Post was who was writing several stories about the dangers of atrazine, a weed killer. The research showed that the writer of these stories had ties with the Tides Foundation which helped fund the Huffington Post Investigative Fund and also worked with Bill Moyers.

Clearly, from Mr. Mapes point of view, a PR firm doing background research on the people who are attacking a client’s products is a very bad thing. Other devious activities of this PR firm included having one of the manufacturer’s scientists work one or ghostwrite a chapter on atrazine included in a 2011 book written by John Entine of the American Enterprise Institute. The book is titled “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens the Public Health.”

The Mapes article concludes by addressing how much the PR firm got paid for their work. The fact that that amount is not known and the firm’s refusal on general policy terms to talk about work done for specific clients is added onto the pile of deviousness.

Sure, I’m overstating the tone of the article. But who can deny what Mr. Mape’s viewpoint on all of this is. The writer of the Huffington Post article and others raising questions about atrazine are never questioned as to their motives or biases. But, anyone working on behalf of the company to counter or address the questions raised about the product are subtly described as dishonest, devious, and untrustworthy. Come on.

What writers like Mapes and the Oregonian editorial staff need to come to grips with is that open debate and exposure of the important public health and safety issues is important. Debate implies two perspectives, both of which need to heard and evaluated. Why do they only want one perspective heard or treated as honest and trustworthy? I raise this issue because it is not limited to the Oregonian, but resides in much media coverage and certainly in internet discussions as well. We want to limit discussion to those whose opinions or perspectives we already agree with. That’s natural, but when this level of bias is demonstrated by a supposedly respectable media outlet, it needs to be called out.

If it can be shown, which it clearly was not in the Mapes article, that the PR firm engaged in dishonest or devious tactics, then it should be identified and their concern about PR tactics should also be our concern. But Mapes’ problem is simply that someone, a local PR firm at that, should be hired by a Swiss company and actually make money on defending their product. Everyone in honest PR should be concerned about this kind of obvious bias.

2 thoughts on “Oregonian opens curtains on devious PR behavior”

  1. Thanks for writing this–it’s a subject we need to keep hammering. I wish there was a “truth in labeling” act for organizations just as there is for food on the shelf. Anyone can set themselves up as a concerned citizens group and get instant cred. Sadly, this kind of stuff sells papers and sways people. I kind of feel the same way about the recent hoopla over Pinterest being “found out” to be making money off affiliate links on their social site. There is nothing covert about what Pinterest was doing–common practice on social sites. But, there is an uproar nonetheless. Good stuff here, Gerald.

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