Third Party Techniques

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In 1991, Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, advised companies about the third party technique:

Put your words in someone else's mouth ... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are. Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often, with the media.[1]

The tobacco industry uses this tactic, whereby pro-smoking arguments are made by seemingly independent third-parties.


Background

It is a tactic not only used by the tobacco industry. As the credibility of controversial industries has waned globally, many companies have seen little benefit in using corporate spokespeople to defend themselves.

Amanda Little from the Sydney office of PR firm Burson-Marsteller told an advertising conference in 1995:

For the media and the public, the corporation will be one of the least credible sources of information, on its own product, environmental and safety risks. Both these audiences will turn to other experts ... to get an objective viewpoint.
Developing third party support and validation for the basic risk messages of the corporation is essential. This support should ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators. [2]

Sometimes the Third Party Techniques are overt, and the industry and / or its front groups pay for these views. In 2011, for instance, the civil liberties campaign group Privacy International produced a report on smoking and privacy, produced and paid for "at the request" of pro-smoking group Forest.[3]

More often, the financial links are less transparent. They might be obfuscated to hide the link between the industry and the third party. While the aim is to persuade public opinion that a broad range of people and organisations share the vision of the industry, third party techniques are not about swaying public opinion per se. That is a battle which the tobacco industry has already lost. The tobacco industry's goal is not to win good PR, but to avoid losing political and legal battles. This survivalist strategy has served the cigarette industry well for 40 years.

Research into previously secret internal tobacco industry documents shows that the tobacco industry has a long history of plotting third party techniques as a strategy. Recent examples include:

Therefore, the allies of the industry and those promoting a pro-tobacco agenda need to be examined with extra scrutiny for possible links with tobacco manufacturers.

Variety of Techniques

Third party techniques come in many forms and not all are disguised. It starts with ordinary lobbying, setting up networks and building alliances. When there is a financial link, it's either hired help or - when the link is hidden - the use of front groups. A specific use of front groups is called astroturfing.

Building Alliances

The most natural form - so to say - of a third party technique, is building alliances with those involved with the industry in any kind of way. This involves, for instance, employees, unions or consumers. Business organisations, representing either the industry or a broader coalition of transnational corporations, can be effective in Lobby Groups and Transnational Lobby Networks.

For example, in the UK, the organisation of small shop owners, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, was exposed for taking money from British American Tobacco to campaign against planned regulation on the Point of Sale Display Ban.

Celebrities

The tobacco archives contain numerous documents revealing how celebrities have been used by the industry, including to:

  • promote "smoking and tolerance" [4]
  • to advertise cigarettes [5]
  • "to smoke KOOL [cigarettes] in movies" [6]
  • to take part in industry-sponsored sporting events with "excellent TV possibilities"[7]

Forest's Celebrities

The industry-funded front organisation, Forest has a celebrity-laden "Supporters Council". Some of these celebrities publicly speak out against laws that Forest campaigns against, such as the smoking ban or proposals for plain packaging. Sometimes however, their connection with Forest is not mentioned, for example in the following case:

  • Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson is the patron of Forest, who gives interviews, according to Forest on "our behalf at all times of the day, whether it be GMTV, Channel 4 News or the World Service. He has also hosted Forest events at The Groucho Club in Soho (where he is a member) and The Savoy hotel in London". [8] However sometimes the link between Forest and the chef is not made clear, for example in August 2011, when Worrall Thompson launched an e-petition calling on the government to review the smoking ban. [9] Forest's Simon Clark has conceded that he asked the chef to submit one. "On Thursday August 4 the Government launched its new e-petition website. As most readers know, I'm not a fan of petitions in general," he wrote. "Nevertheless I spoke to Forest patron Antony Worrall Thompson and he agreed to submit a petition entitled 'Save Our Pubs and Clubs – Amend The Smoking Ban'." [10] Yet if you click on the British Government's e-petition website you only see Worrall Thompson's name, without any mention of Forest or his role as its patron. To the unsuspecting public this appears to be just a celebrity chef putting in a petition, not a pro-smoking organisation. [11]

Hired Help

Tobacco companies sometimes hire Think Tanks, independent experts or other consultants to write a report or to voice an opinion in favour of the industry, for instance to oppose the government's policy on the Display Ban or on Plain Packaging.

Paying for research and for endorsement from medical doctors for instance, as is explained under Influencing Science can be included under Third Party Techniques as hired help.

Front Groups and Astroturfing

Front Groups are organisations specifically set up by the tobacco industry to act as an independent voice in the debate on smoking. They include organisations or initiatives supposedly acting as an independent entity, but they have (occasionally hidden) links to the tobacco industry. Sometimes they are founded or financed by other third parties like.

A very specific form of using front groups is called Astroturfing: faking a grassroots movement. (Astroturf is a brand of artificial grass, and as such the complete opposite of grassroots).

Also:

External Resources

Notes

  1. Merrill Rose, 'Activism in the 90s: changing roles for public relations', Public Relations Quarterly, 1991, Vol. 36, No. 3
  2. Amanda Little, "A green corporate image - more than a logo", Presentation to Green Marketing Conference, June 25 & 26 1990. (Little was Manager, Communications Services, for the Sydney office of Burson-Marsteller at the time).
  3. Simon Davies, Civil liberties: up in smoke, Privacy International, June 2011, accessed 11 June 2011
  4. British American Tobacco, Brief for Celebrity Interviews, Undated
  5. Ted Bates, Project A - Use Of Personalities, 30 August 1976, Brown & Williamson,
  6. Cindy Dillon, CREATIVE ASSIGNMENTS, 24 June 1983
  7. Brown & Williamson, Viceroy Golf Tournament Publicity Program, 8 November 1983
  8. Forest, Supporters, Website, accessed March 2012
  9. Forest, TV chef launches e-petition to amend smoking ban, 25th August 2011
  10. Simon Clark, The Leader of the House of Commons and the smoking ban e-petition, 15 August 2011
  11. HM Government e-petitions, Petitions