Burson-Marsteller: Corporate Crimes

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Working for Repressive Regimes


Burson-Marsteller flacked for both the Nigerian Government and Royal Dutch/Shell during and after the Biafran war. Reports of instability and genocide at the time had hurt Nigeria’s international image, they hired B-M to discredit these reports. [1]

The relationship continued long after the Biafran war. From 1991-2 the Nigerian military junta paid B-M’s lobbying subsidiary, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly (acquired in 1991) over $1m in fees. [2]


After the invasion of East Timor around 200,000 people - one third of the population - were murdered. The Indonesian government has also been accused of genocidal policies against the peoples of Irian Jaya, amongst many other human rights abuses. In 1996, B-M was hired by the Indonesian government to clean up its image. [3] B-M does however deny handling the issue of genocide in East Timor.


BM worked for the Argentinian military junta led by General Jorge Videla, which seized power in a coup d'état in 1976. B-M's job was to improve the country's international image and create the impression of stability to attract foreign investment. During Videla's reign, 35,000 people 'disappeared' and thousands of political prisoners were tortured. Videla is now serving a life sentence for murder.

Harold Burson commented that, "We regard ourselves as working in the business sector for clear-cut business and economic objectives. So we had nothing to do with a lot of the things that one reads in the paper about Argentina as regards human rights and other activities." [4]

Saudi Arabia, et al.

B-M has worked for a host of regimes with appalling human rights records including the notoriously repressive and corrupt government of Saudi Arabia, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, and the governments of Sri Lanka and Singapore. [5] Three days after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, in which 13 of the 16 alleged suicide bombers were Saudis, Saudi Arabia again hired B-M to ensure that its national image remains untarnished. [6]

Greenwashing Biotech


In the 1980s recombinant bovine growth hormone or bovine somatatrophin (rBGH/BST) was Monsanto's flagship biotechnology product. A genetically engineered substitute for the cows' growth hormone, rBGH was developed to increase the milk yield of dairy cows, a market that Monsanto's CEO R.J. Mahoney estimated in 1985 to be worth $1bn a year. It was also one of the first biotech products to be readied for the market and as such the whole biotech industry had an interest. The only problems were gaining approval for its commercial use and some unfavourable scientific opinions of the artificial hormone. Monsanto's own tests showed an increased risk of mastitis in rBGH treated cattle, that the milk went off quicker and that it contained higher levels of pus. FDA scientist, Dr. Richard Burroughs concluded from analysing test data that Monsanto was manipulating the figures. In 1989 he was sacked after complaining to Congress that his superiors were suppressing his accusations.

To deal with the expected controversy Monsanto assembled an army of PR companies to aid them of which B-M was one. Pro-rBGH information was rapidly distributed to the dairy industry, the press and the general public. In this way a 'grass-roots' coalition was formed and extensive lobbying of legislators began. [7]

B-M employees were twice exposed working covertly during the rBGH campaign.

Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union was the author of a report on rBGH. Before the report was published, he was contacted by a B-M employee claiming to be a scheduler for ABC Television’s show, Nightline. She asked for a preview of the report and Hansen's CV, under the pretext of researching rBGH for a Nightline program on the issue. Hansen was suspicious however and inquiries at ABC revealed that no one from Nightline had called Hansen. The fax number she gave turned out to belong to B-M. [8]

B-M also tried to infiltrate the campaign against rBGH, run by academic, author and environmental campaigner Jeremy Rifkin. A B-M employee claiming to represent a non-existent group called 'Maryland Citizen Consumers Council', attended anti-rBGH meetings, but her manner aroused suspicions amongst the activists who quickly exposed her. Burson-Marsteller disavowed all knowledge of her activities, suggesting that she was attending in her free time. [9]


Burson-Marsteller also devised the PR strategy for Europabio, the European industry association for biotech companies. They famously advised the industry to stay off the "communications killing fields" that are the "public issues of environmental and human health risk", i.e. to avoid participating in any public debate on these issues. The strategy recommended leaving it to regulatory bodies and other third parties to deal with these issues, and to communicate through symbols and stories, not logic. A positive image of biotechnology may be created through highlighting new products and potential beneficiaries, and developing a very close relationship with the media; "EuropaBio must turn itself into the journalist's best and most reliable continuing source of biotechnology/bioindustries inspiration and information - the first-stop help desk where they get no industry propaganda but practical, editor-pleasing, deadline-beating, connect to interesting stories and personalities - even adversarial - relevant to their readerships." [10]


Details of further lobbying and PR operations conducted by B-M client, Monsanto can be found here.

Climate Change

In July 2001 B-M issued a denial that it had set up the Global Climate Coalition, a controversial lobbying group for the fossil fuels industry that works toward voluntary codes of conduct and market based solutions to climate change and against mandatory emissions limits. The allegation, which has been quoted in many other sources, originated with PR Watch who, after much fact checking, had to admit that they had made a mistake. [11] Although it remains a mystery why B-M, an industry leader in 'perceptions management', should have taken so long to refute the claim.

Despite this B-M has worked hard to oppose emissions capping legislation. They helped to set up the Business Council on Sustainable Development [see below] which successfully prevented the 1992 Rio Earth from dealing with climate change, and have orchestrated many other anti-emissions control campaigns.

Foundation for Clean Air Progress

Burson-Marsteller is behind a deceptively-named group called the "Foundation for Clean Air Progress" (FCAP), which was founded in 1995. Describing itself as "Your source for public information and education about improving air quality in America" [12], you might think that the FCAP supports measures to control air pollution. In fact, it was formed specifically to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to adopt tougher air pollution controls. The Washington Post reported on June 17, 1997 that FCAP participates in a "multimillion-dollar campaign to turn back EPA regulations for smog and soot. ... The nerve centre behind the attack is a coalition of more than 500 businesses and trade groups that calls itself the Air Quality Standards Coalition. Created specifically to battle the clean air proposals, the coalition operates out of the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group. Its leadership includes top managers of petroleum, automotive and utility companies as well as long-time Washington insiders such as C. Boyden Gray, a counsel to former president George Bush. The same industries would likely bear the brunt of the costs for the new regulations, which the EPA estimates at more than $6 billion a year." [13]


In 1993 Burson-Marsteller led a $1.8 million campaign to defeat a proposed tax on fossil fuels. President Clinton's BTU Tax was the most ambitious measure to combat climate change yet proposed by an American government. The BTU Tax was to be levied on fossil fuels, specifically on the heat generating capacity of fossil fuels – a BTU (British Thermal Unit) is a measure of how much heat will be released by a given mass of fuel. The tax would have added 25 cents to the price of a gallon of petrol.

The tax was at the centre of Clinton's plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he aimed to reduce to 1990 levels by 2000.

Big business was unhappy with the plans however. The National Association of Manufacturers (a sponsor of the Global Climate Coalition), the American Petroleum Institute, over 1,600 companies, large and small, and farmers organised themselves to create the American Energy Alliance (AEA), specifically to derail the BTU tax. [14]

The AEA hired B-M to orchestrate the campaign. Deploying around 45 staff in 23 states, B-M organised a 'grass roots' letter writing and phone-in campaign. They placed anti-BTU articles and editorials in the press, commissioned sceptical economists to write reports and obtained media access for businessmen to express their views. Naturally they also lobbied against the Tax in Washington D.C. [15]

Congressional support for the BTU tax quickly withered away and Clinton’s plan was defeated. Congress voted for the tax to be kept below the five cents level. Treasury Secretary Lloyd-Bentsen described the campaign as "one of the most sophisticated jobs I've seen by lobbyists in a long time."

Stuffing Rio

In the early '90s, Burson-Marsteller was instrumental in setting up, and subsequently flacked for, the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), whose members include Chevron, Volkswagen, Ciba-Geigy, Mitsubishi, Dow Chemicals, Du Pont and Shell. B-M's mission was to greenwash the image of big business in the run-up to the Earth Summit and to ensure that no binding regulations were passed to control the activities of TNCs.

The BCSD was headed by Stephen Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire industrialist and also a close friend of the Secretary-General of the UN Council on Environment and Development (UNCED). Substantial representations were made by the BCSD and UNCED at the 1992 Rio 'Earth Summit', with the result that proposals drawn up by the UN's own Centre for Transnational Corporations - concerning the environmental impact of these large companies, and issues of corporate responsibility and accountability - were not discussed or even circulated to delegates. The best hope for imposing accountability on the activities of TNCs was lost. [16] Furthermore, climate change was left off the agenda due to lobbying.

In 1994 the BCSD merged with the World Industry Council for the Environment, (WICE) [Europe Inc., p151 - WICE was another industry front group created by the International Chamber of Commerce to promote the industry agenda at Rio] and became the World Business Council on Sustainable Development which continues to oppose enforceable environmental legislation and pushes for voluntary corporate action on environmental issues. The WBCSD is now gearing up for 'Rio + 10', the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. [17]

Organising anti-environmental action

The Wise Use Movement

The Wise Use Movement is a loose network of groups within the USA that are held together by a common loathing of environmental pressure groups and environmental legislation and an agenda stressing the rights of private property owners to make their own decisions as to how best to exploit natural resources. The movement is a broad church uniting workers in the extractive industries, libertarian free marketers, and the extreme right. Many commentators believe that B-M was instrumental in setting up the Wise Use Movement. Many of B-M's more unsavoury clients have sponsored Wise Use groups, and in the 1980s when the movement began 36 of the companies known to be sponsoring Wise Use groups were clients of B-M [18]. Direct proof of B-M's involvement has so far remained elusive.

British Columbia Forest Alliance

An anti-environmental group that B-M certainly did create is the British Columbia Forest Alliance. In late 1990 B-M was hired to re-engineer the public image of Canada’s forest industries. The cornerstone of its campaign was a new front group, the British Columbia Forest Alliance. Environmental researcher, Andy Rowell described it thus: "The Alliance was designed as the industry’s stealth bomber, packed with influential people and fuelled with industry dollars, to blast holes in the environmentalists' forestry campaigns. However, it came packaged as a dove of concern and conciliation". [19]

The BC Forest Alliance was launched in April 1991 under the leadership of Jack Munro, formerly the Chairperson of the International Wood Workers of America Union. Gary Ley, of B-M, was appointed executive director. In its first year it received $1m from corporate sponsors. [20]

The Vancouver Sun, the biggest newspaper in British Columbia, with a daily circulation of 260,000, soon fell under the influence of the Alliance. Forest company officials and Alliance members were soon visiting its offices. Before the launch of the BC Forest Alliance, the Sun had five full-time reporters covering forestry, native affairs, and other environmental issues. Soon only one environment journalist remained. The rest were assigned to a category called "resources" in the business section.

Reporters who wrote critically about the forest industry, and those who probed the workings of the Forest Alliance and Burson-Marsteller itself, say they were subjected to pressure. The Sun's forestry reporter, Ben Parfitt, was pulled from environmental issues after writing about Burson-Marsteller and the Forest Alliance, and reporter Mark Hume was grilled by a logging company official and an industry consultant, in the editor's office, about columns he had written about a pro-logging coalition, while the editor, Hume says, stood by in silence. [21]

Ken Rietz of Burson-Marsteller produced a seven-part TV series, entitled "The Forest and the People" to spread pro-industry propaganda. [22]

The BC Forest Alliance now claims a membership of 10,000 individuals and 300 companies and industry groups. [23]

Forest Protection Society (Australia)

Throughout the 1980s the Australian timber industry was targeted by ecological campaigns and direct action. In response the industry spawned a new front group, the Forest Protection Society (FPS), with start-up money from the Forest Industry Campaign Association. [24]

Employing Wise Use-style rhetoric, the FPS got itself listed as an environmental protection organisation in the Directory of Australian Associations. It promotes a "balanced use" of Australia's forests and claims that the best way to protect forests is to extract the wood and sell it. From the start the FPS aimed to build a large 'grass-roots' membership to suggest an independent standpoint [25]. The FPS involves itself in as many forest campaigns as it can, fighting for the rights of local communities to exploit the forests, and of course the for the timber industry. By April 1998 the FPS had 56 local branches across Australia. [26]

Amongst other tactics the FPS has used include taking over local environmentalist meetings, with the result that they became distracted from their ongoing campaign. [27] Like many groups associated with the American Wise Use Movement, the FPS is a client of Burson-Marsteller.

Defending Big Tobacco

  • National Smokers Alliance
The National Smokers Alliance is a front group, formed by B-M, which mobilised the support of smokers around the US to oppose new anti-smoking legislation. Members are recruited through direct marketing, free phone hotlines, and on-the-street canvassing. By 1995 the NSA claimed a membership of 3 million. The NSA encourages its members to oppose smoking bans and other restrictions on smoking. [28]

Fighting for Environmental Pollution

Crisis management for Union Carbide following Bhopal Disaster

In India in 1984, B-M handled crisis management for US company Union Carbide when its pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked more than 40 tonnes of toxic gas. 2000 people were killed instantly and after three days 5000 had died; at least 20,000 have died since, as a result of the disaster, and hundreds of thousands are suffering lung, eye and gastric complaints. Tuberculosis incidence in Bhopal is 3 times the Indian average. Following B-M's PR and lobbying work, in 1989, as part of a court settlement, Union Carbide paid $470 million on the condition that it could not be held liable in any future criminal or civil proceedings, and the Indian Supreme Court dropped all charges of manslaughter against Union Carbide, although safety mechanisms at the plant were appallingly inadequate. The company has now left India, leaving most of the responsibility with the Indian government. [29]

Crisis management for Exxon Valdez oil spill

In the wake of the Unabomber's allegations that Burson-Marsteller was hired to manage Exxon's PR crisis over the Exxon Valdez oil spill, B-M has officially denied conducting crisis management over the issue. It does, however, admit to conducting a study of the case for Exxon after the event.

Californians for Realistic Vehicle Standards

Burson-Marsteller is also behind a front group called "Californians for Realistic Vehicle Standards", formed to oppose restrictions on automobile emissions of nitrogen oxide and other polluting gases. "The address of the month-old lobbying group is the Sacramento headquarters of the California Chamber of Commerce, while the group's phone number is that of the Sacramento office of Burson-Marsteller, an international public relations firm often used by the auto industry. Detroit auto makers provided the bulk of the money for the new group." [30]

Three Mile Island

Whilst Hill & Knowlton flacked for Metropolitan Edison, the plant's operators, B-M conducted crisis PR for Babcock & Wilcox, the company that built the reactor at Three Mile Island. [31]

Keep America Beautiful

B-M works for the best-known anti-littering campaign in the USA, Keep America Beautiful (KAB). KAB attempts to educate and motivate the American public to reduce littering and is funded by many corporate interests. While superficially it appears to promote a worthy cause, the corporate interest is in its implicit message that littering, amongst other environmental issues, is the responsibility of the individual citizen. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental and consumer groups accused it of opposing various state and national efforts to establish mandatory bottle and can recycling. The proposed legislation would have helped the litter problem, but offended the interests of some of KAB's corporate sponsors including Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and the Reynolds Metal Company. [32] Its long term ignoring of the issue of cigarette butt littering, is best explained by its funding from the four largest US tobacco companies, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard.

Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment

In Europe, BM set up the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, in 'defence of the beverage carton against environmental and regulatory pressures'. Its purpose is to make disposable cartons look environmentally friendly, and is sponsored by packaging interests such as Tetra Pak, Elopak, Bowater (now called REXAM) and Weyerhauser. [33]

BP's Torrey Canyon oil spill

B-M handled crisis management for long-standing client BP in the wake of the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill that devastated wildlife along the Cornish coastline. [34]

Czech Mining

B-M conducted a PR campaign in the Czech Republic on behalf of TVX Gold, a Canadian mining corporation. TVX needed help in renewing its exploration license for a gold deposit near the town of Kaperske Hory and countering local opposition. The project posed a substantial threat to the unique environment of the Sumava Mountains and became a major controversy in the Czech Republic.

In January 1997, TVX halted pre-mining exploration in Kasperske Hory when authorities would not renew its drilling license.

B-M's campaign began as a relatively modest attempt to allay fears about the environmental impact of the project but later became a blatant attempt to replace Frantisek Stibal, the mayor of Kapserske Hory. Along the way they hired Czech celebrities to promote the project and published a free local newsletter in the area. Vojtech Kotecky, of Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, described the campaign as unscrupulous, full of dirty personal attacks, sophisticated and well-directed propaganda, combined with offers of financial support to the local community.

Ultimately it was to no avail. After two years of campaigning on either side, the Czech government cancelled TVX's concession after Stibal was re-elected in landslide victory. "Fortunately the Czech people remember methods of Communist propaganda and therefore are rather immune to TVX's similar ones," says Stibal. [35]


Breast Implants

In 1991 B-M began a crisis PR campaign for Dow-Corning to handle the growing public health controversy over silicone breast implants. B-M had been retained by Dow-Corning for years previously, but as the controversy exploded in late 1990 and early 1991 so did B-M's account fees. In 1990 B-M billed Dow-Corning just $6000, but from May 1991 to February 1992 that fee rose to nearly $3.8 million. [36]

Whilst Dow-Corning and the wider medical industry had known about the problems of breast implants since the 1970s, they and the multi-million dollar cosmetic surgery industry had managed to ignore it until it gained significant TV coverage in December 1990.

B-M organised an astro-turf campaign to save silicone breast implants, organising women who were victims of breast cancer and had implants for reconstruction, into an effective and very public campaign. Ultimately, in 1992, the FDA banned them except for use with cancer victims.


Hired by the Salinas administration in 1990 to promote Mexico's NAFTA agenda, Burson-Marsteller spearheaded a successful campaign to sell NAFTA in the USA. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that overall the PRI government of Mexico spent in excess of $25m on the NAFTA campaign, in the USA alone. To secure passage of the agreement, Burson-Marsteller prepared numerous reports, press releases and video news releases. Generally, their public relations work focused on the themes of jobs, the environment and support for NAFTA among Latin Americans. Burson-Marsteller targeted newspapers, radio and TV stations, civic groups, public officials, press services, educational institutions and industry groups for dissemination of pro-NAFTA information. B-M also sidelined opposition to NAFTA from groups concerned with economic justice and human rights issues in Mexico, portraying their objections as idle "Mexico-bashing." This spin was later refined to combat the Zapatista PR crisis by portraying the rebellion and the trade deal as two separate issues.

B-M picked up plenty of work from the Mexican government before and after the NAFTA campaign. When Mexico's challenge to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, under the rules of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was upheld in August 1991 - sparking public outrage in the US - Burson-Marsteller immediately issued press and video releases proclaiming Mexico's commitment to dolphin protection. By the mid-90s Young & Rubicam, B-M's parent company was making over $100m a year from contracts in Mexico. [37]

Animal Industry Foundation

In response to mounting criticism from animal rights and environmental activists, the agricultural industry in the USA has fought back with SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), using libel and defamation laws in order to try to gag their critics. They have also lobbied successfully for 'food disparagement laws', which strengthen the corporate legal position against public criticism.

One group that conducted much of the campaign for food disparagement laws and other protections for the agricultural industry was the B-M funded Animal Industry Foundation, [38] replaced in 2001 by the Animal Agriculture Alliance. [39]


The Corporate TV Network began life as a joint venture between B-M and ITN, making extra profits for ITN by using its staff and equipment to make videos for the corporate market. There have been allegations that the link between ITN and CTN may effect the reporting of stories about CTN clients on ITN News, particularly regarding ITN's reporting of Shell's involvement in the repression of the Ogoni people in Nigeria. [40] Bruce Whitehead of ITN felt that his investigation of the Ogoni controversy may have been dropped due to a conflict of interests in ITN as CTN was also making a film on the same subject on behalf of Shell, to put across the oil company's side of the story.


  1. ^ Guardian, 8 Jan 2002
  2. ^ Stauber J and Rampton S, 1995, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry pp150, 209
  3. ^ Observer, 8 Dec 96
  4. ^ Carmelo Ruiz, Burson-Marsteller: PR for the New World Order, http://home.intekom.com/tm_info/ge_bm.htm
  5. ^ ibid.
  6. ^ O'Dwyers PR Daily, Nov 12 2001
  7. ^ Stauber J and Rampton S, 1995, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry p56-7; Rowell A, 1996, Green Backlash:Global Subversion of ther Environment Movement pp113-4
  8. ^ John Dillon, "Poisoning the Grassroots", Covert Action Quarterly 44, Spring 1993
  9. ^ ibid.
  10. ^ Communications Programmes For EUROPABIO Prepared by Burson-Marsteller Government & Public Affairs, January 1997, Organic Consumers Association web site, http://www.organicconsumers.org/bmplan.html
  11. ^ PR Watch vol 8 no 3, http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2001Q3/cx.html
  12. ^ http://www.cleanairprogress.org
  13. ^ PR Watch vol 8, no 3, http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2001Q3/cx.html
  14. ^ Time, 21-6-1993
  15. ^ PR Watch vol.8 no.3
  16. ^ Ecologist, vol.22, no.4, 1992
  17. ^ WBCSD Annual review 2001, http://www.wbcsd.com
  18. ^ Rowell A, 1996, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement p115
  19. ^ Rowell A, 1996, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement p195
  20. ^ Kim Goldberg, Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec 1993, http://www.cjr.org/year/93/6/logging.asp, date viewed 20-6-2002
  21. ^ ibid.
  22. ^ Rowell A, 1996, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement p196
  23. ^ http://www.forest.org, date viewed 3-5-2002
  24. ^ Beder S, "Ecological Double Agents", Australian Science, Vol. 19, no 1, February 1998, pp19-22
  25. ^ Beder S, 1997, Global Spin: the Corporate assault on Environmentalism, Green Books, 2002, p238-40.
  26. ^ Waranga News, April 23, 1998
  27. ^ Boycott Woodchipping Campaign, "PR and the Timber Industry", http://www.green.net.au/boycott/timber.htm, date viewed 3-5-2002
  28. ^ Stauber J and Rampton S, 1995, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry pp29-31
  29. ^ Pesticide Action Network Update Services, Dec 5 2001, http://www.organicconsumers.org/toxic/bhopal120601.cfm, date viewed 2-5-2002
  30. ^ New York Times, Nov 3 1998; PR Watch Vol.8 no.3
  31. ^ S Elsworth, 1990, A Dictionary of the Environment
  32. ^ PR Watch vol.8 no.3
  33. ^ http://www.ace.be
  34. ^ Guardian, Jan 8 2002
  35. ^ Drillbits & Tailings, September 21, 1997 and July 7, 1998
  36. ^ PR Watch vol.3 no.1, http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1996Q1/index.html, date viewed 20-6-2002
  37. ^ Stauber J and Rampton S, 1995, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry pp175-6; Multinational Monitor
  38. ^ PR Watch vol.4 no.2, http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1997Q2/slapp.html, date viewed 20-6-2002
  39. ^ http://www.soundagscience.org/q-a.html, date viewed 20-6-2002
  40. ^ Bruce Whitehead, Feb 3 2000, A Shell over the Truth, http://www.mediachannel.org/views/whistleblower/whitehead.shtml, date viewed 20-6-2002