ANALYSIS: PROFILE - PR's candid cop tells what sent him sniffing - Some refute him; others are quick to aid his crusade against the PR industry. Matthew Arnold talks to John Stauber, a man who's undoubtedly found his calling

John Stauber, editor of the PR industry newsletter PR Watch and co-author of a series of blistering critiques on PR, loves being asked what put him on the trail. 'Blame Burson-Marsteller,' he says, with obvious glee.

John Stauber, editor of the PR industry newsletter PR Watch and co-author of a series of blistering critiques on PR, loves being asked what put him on the trail. 'Blame Burson-Marsteller,' he says, with obvious glee.

John Stauber, editor of the PR industry newsletter PR Watch and co-author of a series of blistering critiques on PR, loves being asked what put him on the trail. 'Blame Burson-Marsteller,' he says, with obvious glee.

It all started back in 1991, when Stauber, a professional activist, was lobbying for mandatory labeling of dairy products containing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) on behalf of the Foundation on Economic Trends.

Stauber was organizing a meeting of several dozen groups under the anti-rBGH banner when he received a call from a woman from the Maryland Citizen's Consumer Council. He signed her up to attend and thought nothing of it. Several months later, a reporter called and asked Stauber if he knew there was a spy at that meeting. 'I knew everyone there except for this woman,' he says.

Stauber later discovered that the woman worked under Sheila Raviv, then-VP at Burson, which counted Eli Lilly as a client. Eli Lilly had much riding on rBGH and the biotech boom. Stauber was outraged. 'That angered me tremendously. I don't think anyone likes to be lied to and misled.'

Raviv, now managing director of worldwide constituency relations at Burson, flatly denies that her employees ever spied on activists. 'I don't remember the incident very clearly at all,' she admits, 'but that would never, absolutely never, be the policy of Burson.'

Whatever the case, the incident led Stauber to found the Center for Media and Democracy and, together with Sheldon Rampton, begin publishing PR Watch. The quarterly magazine bills itself as 'public interest reporting on the PR and public affairs industry.' The center primarily supports the publication of PRWatch and its accompanying Web site at www.prwatch.org. It draws support from environmental charities like the Turner Foundation and the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

Stauber and Rampton are the scourge of the PR industry and have published a string of anti-corporate books, including 1995's Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.

They followed that up two years later with Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?, about the US beef industry's attempts to quell fears about mad cow disease.

Then in January of this year, they released Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future, which focuses on the confluence of scientists, statisticians and PR practitioners.

While Stauber will admit there are PR practitioners who do put a premium on ethics, on the whole he has an extremely provocative view of the profession. 'It's fundamentally a deeply unethical industry, because ultimately, all PR is propaganda. It has a very specific agenda, and often manages issues in a way that harms the public or forestalls public knowledge.'

One independent PR consultant, Peter Sandman, who's been featured in PRWatch, says Stauber overstates the influence of PR tactics. 'Stauber is talking about things that are less common than he thinks and less effective than he thinks.'

Some of the most critical material for Stauber's books has come from anonymous industry sources, typically frustrated, low-level employees. Stauber recalls one such whistle-blower who was working for the Virginia-based public affairs firm State Affairs when it formed a front group for Philip Morris called Contributions Watch.

According to Stauber, the group had successfully positioned itself in the media as a public-interest watchdog. But the source knew otherwise, and provided Stauber with documents showing Contributions Watch had been invented by State Affairs, with help from APCO & Associates. Both firms represented Philip Morris. Stauber passed the leaked documents to The Washington Post, which ran with them, causing an end to Contributions Watch.

BJ Copper, an SVP at APCO, disputes the story: 'We don't do front groups. I don't want to say that no one ever had a conversation about Contributions Watch. We may have been asked for our viewpoint about how to release information.'

Stauber and Rampton often attend industry events like the PRSA's annual convention. 'It's not unusual for somebody from the PR world to compliment us on our reporting and affirm its general accuracy and then say, 'But it's even worse than you know,'' says Stauber.

Alan Caruba, who runs the conservative advocacy Web site AnxietyCenter.com has harsh words for Stauber. 'The books are intended to appear as serious analyses of the profession, but are in fact little more than a polemical attack on it and the people who work in it,' he says.

'Their agenda is to demonstrate that corporations exist solely for evil purposes. One does not hold attorneys responsible for their clients if they happen to be murderers, rapists or lowlifes. They have a right to legal representation. Similarly, corporations have a right to PR representation.'

As Stauber and Rampton move from the sidelines to the mainstream with a new publisher, they are considering yet another book. 'We want to do a lot more Web reporting, especially around sound science versus junk science,' says Stauber.



JOHN STAUBER

editor, author and activist

1980-1984

Co-director, Stop Project ELF, an anti-nuclear group



1985-1988

Consultant, Wisconsin Coordinating

Council on Nicaragua



1988-1993

Consultant, Foundation on Economic Trends



1993

Founds Center for Media and Democracy



1993-present

Editor, PR Watch magazine and Web site; co-authors Toxic Sludge is Good For You! (1995), Mad Cow USA (1997) and Trust Us, We're Experts (2001).



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