Engineering of Consent

One of the major challenges facing citizen groups campaigning to prevent, minimize, limit or regulate socially-irresponsible or environment-degrading practices of transnational corporations is how to deal with the corporations' increasing call for 'dialogue' and 'cooperation'. Many transnational corporations say they have seen the error of their ways and have rectified their mistakes. Eager to do their best for 'our common future', they claim to be listen to their critics. Thus 'dialogues' with companies or industry organizations are frequently portrayed as the way ahead for citizen groups seeking corporate accountability, rather than 'confrontational' strategies such as boycotts. What are the dangers and limits of doing so?

An answer requires exploring the ways in which calls for 'dialogue' of 'cooperation' have masked attempts to manipulate public debates; to silence or neutralize critics; and to create an image of socially-concerned business.

Knowledge of corporate PR strategies may help activists and concerned citizens to recognize manipulative strategies and distinguish them from industry behavior that is truly indicative of change, and thus be in a better position to counter such strategies. To be in a better position to resist corporate attemps to manipulate public debate and engeneer consent, corporate accountability activists need to learn how better to distinguish between marketing -selling a product- and corporate relations - selling industry views (although manipulation is key to both kinds of activities). 'PR literacy' can be increased by reading PR textbooks (in particular, glossaries and sections on issues management and sponsorship) and investigative work on corporate PR strategies. Spaces for democratic decision-making can be recovered in various ways:

Trying to limit opportunities for industry to gather information on activist plans

For instance, activists should ask journalists and others interviewing them about their funding sources and request to see copies of their publications before giving interviews. If they do enter into discussions with industry, they should try to avoid giving away strategic information about their financial and human resources and action plans; they should however, loudly and clearly voice their concerns about what they regard as the public issue.

Unveiling hidden PR practices

Action groups could set up public data banks on persons involved in 'two-step-communication' (the use of third parties) 'front organizations' and on corporate-instituted 'grass root organizations'. They could try to expose publicly the most influential or consciously-manipulative persons or organizations through their own publications and, if possible, through other media. They could institute an annual competition for the best 'corporate camouflage' of the year (similar toe existing awards for the 'top polluter, for instance). Legislation requiring politicians, government officials and health professionals receiving industry funds to declare that they are doing so could increase transparency in public debates. Given PR practioners' vital role in engineering consent to anti-social business practices, action groups could attempt to expose PR practitioners' violations of the various voluntary codes of conduct instituted by major professional PR associations such as the Public Relations Society of America or the International Public Relation Association.

Resisting suppression of public issues

The culture of industry secrecy, mechanisms of censorship and silencing need to be seriously addressed. Health Action International, for example, is currently co-organizing a campaign for public access to information underlying decisions giving market approval for new medicinal drugs in Europe. New coalitions are needed to work for national Freedom of Information Acts, and against structural censorship in the media. Groups should do all they can to expose and resist industry attempts to silence critics.

Trying not to be used to enhance the image of an industry

To prevent, or at least limit, being used to enhance a corporate image, professional associations and action groups should continue discussing all these issues among themselves and establish clear policies on funding. There is a need to explore the long-term structural consequences of NGOs and social and research institutions replacing dwindling public funds with industry sponsorships, which they are under pressure to do. Organizations with a high public standing, such as UN agencies and church organizations, should be particularly careful not to let themselves be used for image transfer or to enhance the legitimacy of a criticized company.

Resisting corporate attempts to manipulate public debate

Ideally, this encompasses a dual strategy: publicly exposing attempts to silence, delay, divert or fudge, on the other hand: while at the same time, developing and publicizing other analysis and alternative visions, on the other. Given their limited financial resources and human-power, however, action groups often have to decide between these two strategies. Yet greater exchange and new coalitions between industry critics from different movements - consumer, health, environmental, democratic media, social justice and women's movements, for instance - may conserve institutional resources.

Engineering of Consent is focusing on the ongoing baby-milk campaign and the counter-strategies developed by Nestlé since the seventies. The Cornerhouse briefing is dealing with: Corporate PR, The Art of Camouflage and Deception, Issues Management, Intelligence Gathering and Assessments, Image Management, Suppression of Public Issues, PR Laundering, Manipulating the Public Debate.

The Engineering of Consent, Uncovering Corporate PR can be ordered at The Cornerhouse by email: