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Is Misleading the Public Really Profitable?

There shouldn’t be a choice between honest public relations and outright skewing of the truth for short-term gain, but as we know from never ending battles with tobacco companies, the latter is all too often common practice.

There shouldn’t be a choice between honest public relations and outright skewing of the truth for short-term gain, but as we know from never ending battles with tobacco companies, the latter is all too often common practice.

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Enter the issue of global warming. Or, as I prefer to call it, global weirding, since we’re not really sure whether we’re heading for a tinderbox or an ice age. Despite that uncertainty, there’s simply no question that our rampant greenhouse gas emissions (among other things) are causing havoc on Earth’s fragile ecosystems – to our peril. There’s also no debate that, even if Armageddon is not nigh, the majority of proactive steps a company can take to reduce their emissions are (surprise!) ultimately profitable.

There are innumerable examples of how “going green” has paid off on the traditional bottom line. From small companies in Madison, to the biggest companies in the world, like Wal-Mart and General Electric, proactive decisions to reduce their environmental footprints are bringing in more profits – even before any PR benefits are considered.

Despite all this optimism, however, there are some companies and organizations that have gone out of their way to fight tooth and nail the very idea that doing anything proactively environmental is in anyone’s interest, much less their own. And they are using their PR machines to man the front lines in this imaginary battle.

One of the most bizarre examples of this is the “CO2 is Life” advertisements produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This “public service” campaign is so silly, it looks like it was made up by The Onion. It is, however, real and was funded with indirect money from Exxon, Ford and the many other contributors to CEI.

Another interesting group who are insistent about spending enormous money and effort to avoid doing anything about the issue of global warming (and most other environmental issues) is the National Association of Manufacturers, who stubbornly believe that the only thing that matters is finding ways to produce more energy, more cheaply – never mind efficiency. But at least they’re not lying about what they believe.

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The most infamous example of late, however, has to be a small cartoon that appeared on YouTube mocking Al Gore. The badly made cartoon was purported to be an amateur creation but was in fact, a deliberate (and likely expensive) creation of PR firm DCI (See Wall Street Journal for the whole story) inserted into the YouTube community in stealth. DCI is, incidentally, Exxon’s PR firm. Craig Newmark alluded to this type of “Astroturf” campaign as being an assault on democracy itself. I say it’s certainly an assault on honesty and common sense and judging by the comments on YouTube an unintended slap in the face for Exxon’s image.

Why would a company spend so much effort and money to try and mislead the public about an issue that will ultimately affect everyone? If the public were to universally accept the threat of global warming and start making steps to change their ways Exxon would hardly go out of business. Do denialist companies really think that keeping the public in the dark is going to reward them? Or is it pure ego and stubbornness? Perhaps it’s a calculated maneuver to buy time before actually doing anything. Even if there are short-term gains to be reaped by selling one last Hummer, there is surely a longer term profit to consider by accepting a changing world and being a leader in looking for solutions rather sticking ones head in the sand. Sadly for some companies, that may be their demise.

As and end note, there’s obviously a difference between Exxon, a company who relies on oil extraction to stay in business, and a company which can cut its oil use to become more efficient, greener, and more profitable. But I don’t think this lets Exxon off the hook. Both BP and Shell, and to a lesser extent, Chevron, have made “going green” a major part of their PR efforts, and are, in fact, making significant strides to become “energy companies” rather than simply “oil companies” while investing in solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy. That’s smart. And even if it’s mostly a marketing campaign (after all, they’re all still oil companies at the core), it makes enough difference to me in terms of who I’ll support at the pump.