Ethical vs Non-ethical Public Relations

What is ethical public relations? Where do you draw the line and what should your boundaries be when influencing public perceptions and opinions? As president of a Canadian public relations firm my colleagues and I face this question all the time. Some days the answer is more obvious than others, so I asked Rutgers University philosopher Jason Stanley how to maintain a principled position.

It’s a question that floats to the surface like a greasy slick these days because during the last 12 to 18 months, Canadians have been subjected to one of the most expensive and extensive PR campaigns in history, in an attempt to nudge public attention away from the environmental impacts of tankers, pipelines and oil sands mining, and redirect it towards economic benefits.

Whether it has been Enbridge ads regarding the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline — “A path to prosperity … a path to thriving communities” — or Canada’s own federal government talking about creating “more than a million jobs from coast to coast to coast,” the tactic has been relentless.

Harper’s federal government spent more than $55 million on advertising last year and conducted hundreds of polls, to not just reflect public opinion but also shape it. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) featured greenwashing, pro oil-sands ads that showed scientists and workers standing in pristine wilderness expounding their concern for the environment.

I asked Stanley what the communication ground rules are: Should the touchstone be whether you are increasing people’s understanding, or decreasing it? Or is that too naïve a distinction?

That’s an excellent distinction, he told me, except it’s unworkable. That's an intuitive guideline that people use, but facts are difficult things to nail down. It isn't that someone wants to make obviously false statements but people are constantly negotiating with the “boundary” of truth.

Stanley, who specializes in the philosophy of language and epistemology, believes such boundaries are disappearing because scientific objectivity is either being eroded, or left completely out of conversations in the public square.

People today express opinions, not facts.

Everyone is under the grip of an ideology, so what we’re doing is comparing ideological frameworks now.” He adds the right-wing media adds to the turmoil by saying whenever anyone asserts something you cannot believe them because they’re just trying to manipulate you for their own interests.

Fox News is saying you can’t believe anything you hear because everyone is just trying to get you to accept their own ideology.”

For instance, the National Academy of Science and the Royal Society, which comprise many of the world’s most distinguished scientists, agree climate change is a serious problem. The American Petroleum Institute and the Fraser Institute, however, are two non-scientific organizations that do not.

How do you participate in debates about climate change and science when you’re not a scientist? How does the public benefit from this lop-sided debate, or draw any usable and meaningful conclusions?

The issues started to come into focus for me when I was doing a book tour soon after writing Climate Cover-Up in 2009. I was invited to speak at Yale Universities’ debate society, the Yale Political Union. After a nearly three-hour debate I decided to leave students with this thought:

When I was in first year law school a lot of us asked how you justify defending a rapist or serial killer. We were told the legal system was set up to be adversarial. It is based on the prosecution arguing a case, the defence arguing a case, and then a judge or jury deciding.

Everybody has a job and everyone puts faith in the process. When I got involved in the PR business I heard a similar argument about getting a client’s information into the court of public opinion. It wasn’t up to the PR firm to pass judgment.

But I see two big flaws in that thinking. First, there are no rules of evidence in the court of public opinion. When you talk about climate change especially, the public can be misled because there are no charges for perjury, no one is held accountable for tampering with evidence. And second, there is little distinction between an expert witness and a charlatan.

So how does the public judge?

Stanley says it makes sense that a scientific debate should take place in a “scientific way” through journals and conferences. When the public is involved, we can choose to believe and listen to those who are reliable, and tune out those who are not.

We may not all be experts in climate change but we can educate ourselves to understand what they're talking about to a certain degree. To continually listen to a debate among scientific illiterates adds little to the public discourse. 

When trying to judge where the truth lies, he warns there are two important tactics to be aware of:  One is the undermining of sincerity by special interest groups who know how to exploit a strategy that throws into question the credibility of public figures, and the second is to suggest that no one has special access to the facts about any domain.

People who claim the mantle of science are trying to say: “We’re the experts, you have to believe us because we are scientists.” In certain respects this latter point is right, says Stanley. But “We don't want Milton Friedman telling us economics is a science, and he's an expert, and we're not and we have to listen to him because there's competing models.”

There's a significant difference between economics and climate science. For one thing, economics is more akin to history and is an interpretive discipline rather than a predictive one. But the critical gulf between the two is: In economics there are many different views among experts whereas in climate science there are not.

When there are “wildly” different views, he says it’s inappropriate to feature only one expert’s view and hold them up as the single person to believe, “and let them boss you around.”

That's a clearly illegitimate use of a scientific expert. There are areas of science where there is genuine controversy, and where experts disagree. When such scientific disputes are present, then no expert should be allowed to claim their view is unchallenged.

But when it comes to climate science, this is clearly not the case.

There is overwhelming agreement and that’s what must be conveyed to the public.

Among climate scientists, the debate was settled years ago after an overwhelming consensus emerged in the literature. A review of the published research by James Lawrence Powell found that out of 13,950 peer-reviewed articles, published between 1991 and 2012, only 24 reject human-caused global warming. 

So, in fact, all that remains is a political debate about what to do to address it. Of course, scientists remain involved in the discussion, so they remain targets for attack and obfuscation.

What's happening in the climate debate is similar to what's happening in the case of evolution with the Discovery Institute, an American public policy think tank. “You have a whole industry of fake science being created, to create the illusion of controversy,” Stanley told me.

He said this is exacerbated when PR firms and news media create a “din” — where the facts are unclear, there is no uniformity to facts, no one is believable and everyone has a different agenda. That’s when people stop listening.

The engine driving this din is the turbine of powerful moneyed interests, whether oil and coal companies, or the people whose livelihoods depend on those industries, whether or not the industries are good for their country, their community, or for their children and grandchildren. 

The prison industrial complex is a staggering example of this. Massively important in the United States and becoming more so in Canada, Stanley explains the system does not make sense since imprisoning huge portions of a population is not an economically sound way to run a country.

We in the U.S. imprison 25% of the world's prisoners, and have by far the largest prison population in the world … We shouldn't have a prison industry, but there are so many prison guards and so many lawyers, so many people whose livelihood depends on a steady influx. That's their job.” 

Such policies are promoted because of financial self-interest.

People are employed in industries that are clearly bad for the country and the world, yet people align their views with whatever is going to keep their paychecks coming every month.

We live in a complicated world with confusing debates and motivations churning on all sides.

We started DeSmog Canada because we wanted to clean up the PR pollution that swirls around issues of the environment, social justice and the economy. My interview with Stanley helped me understand how we accomplish that, by not only telling the truth and increasing people’s understanding, but also by encouraging people to look at issues in a different way and rely on trustworthy experts.

Without being an expert it’s very challenging to get to the bottom of things, but we have an obligation to try. There is no way we can all become authorities on climate science —— I don’t personally know anyone who’s taken an ice core sample from Greenland lately —— but part of being a good citizen is informing ourselves, figuring out who to trust, seeking those with proper credentials and keeping the discussion healthy.

We need to ask the right questions, and encourage the media to do the same, so we can detect the difference between fake and real debate.

Post image from Enbridge's Northern Gateway “Safety & Environment” web page.