Inside Big Oil’s sleazy secret spin machine


There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about how Big Oil uses public relations, or PR, to achieve its political goals and try to steamroll its environmental opponents. One such episode played out recently in an unusually public fashion, as Politico, the website that’s popular with Beltway insiders, ran what amounted to a free ad for BP (not so coincidentally, one of its own advertisers) in the form of an unchallenged op-ed by the oil giant’s chief in-house spin doctor. The appearance of the piece — which was larded with lies about the impact of BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — generated quite a bit of controversy, as it should have.

But much of the millions of dollars that Big Oil spends to influence and corrupt the American body politic takes place far, far under the radar screen. In other words, it doesn’t generate a lot of controversy because most folks don’t even know it’s taking place. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which coincidentally also took place in 2010, corporations are allowed to give millions of dollars to political campaigns — sometimes in small towns where they do business — under a blanket of anonymity. But that’s not all. They also fund think tanks or research institutes with unbiased sounding names that in fact exist to do the bidding of corporate America with pseudo-science. And then there’s the secret efforts to spy on environmentalists or to embarrass citizens who speak out.

This week, The New York Times — with the help of an anonymous, and disgusted, businessman — published a tape-recording of a leading public relations executive revealing to Big Oil executives how they can crush their environmental opponents, and not leave a trace. It is a story that every American should read:

WASHINGTON — If the oil and gas industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to employ tactics like digging up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities, a veteran Washington political consultant told a room full of industry executives in a speech that was secretly recorded.

The blunt advice from the consultant, Richard Berman, the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company consulting firm, came as Mr. Berman solicited up to $3 million from oil and gas industry executives to finance an advertising and public relations campaign called Big Green Radicals.

The company executives, Mr. Berman said in his speech, must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups. And major corporations secretly financing such a campaign should not worry about offending the general public because “you can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said.

“Think of this as an endless war,” Mr. Berman told the crowd at the June event in Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance, a group whose members include Devon Energy, Halliburton and Anadarko Petroleum, which specialize in extracting oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. “And you have to budget for it.”

Some of the tactics that Berman revealed in the speech, about using kids or dogs to create viral videos to trash unions and their collective bargaining rights, are things you already figured that Big Oil was doing. But some of his plans or suggestions — like digging up personal dirt on the board members of environmental groups like the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council — are beyond despicable. Personally, I’ve been crossing swords with Big Oil for a quarter-century, and I’ve seen some of their underhanded tactics first hand. But kudos to The New York Times for revealing this to a wider audience — the simple truth that the oil industry in America can’t win on the facts. They win by playing dirty.

Read the entire New York Times article on PR executive Richard Berman’s secretly taped remarks:

Check out a full transcript of his speech:

Here’s my Oct. 23 blog post about BP’s untruthful spin doctoring:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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