The Situationist

The Situation of Public Relations

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 19, 2010

Here at the Situationist, we spend a lot of time focused on new research from the mind sciences and, as a result, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there are other individuals and entities (besides academics and universities) out there working tirelessly to uncover what makes us tick.

Some of these individuals and entities are well intentioned: they want to know how humans think and behave to design better government policies that reduce suffering and improve outcomes or to create products or services that better serve our needs and wants.

Yet, there are others out there whose goals are less meritorious.  Like mind scientists, they understand that people are powerfully influenced by their situations, but their aim is not to use this knowledge to nudge people towards healthy eating choices that save lives and minimize costs or long-term savings that can help people thrive into old age.  Rather, their sole aim is to maximize profits.

Take Richard Berman, head of the public relations firm, Berman and Company.  I (along with Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon) became familiar with Berman’s work a number of years ago while doing research on how fast food corporations use third-party messengers to alter the debate over the causes of the current obesity epidemic.  As documented in a resulting article, Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America (Emory Law Journal, 2004), Berman is a master at altering seemingly settled issues—like whether high fructose corn syrup is good for you and whether there should be a minimum wage—because he understands how people think.

Rachel Maddow exposed some of Berman’s more recent public campaigns in an interesting segment below.

On Thursday, Stephanie Strom at the New York Times, had a nice piece on how Berman uses the nonprofit loophole to accomplish his goals:

Across two decades, Mr. Berman has founded the Center for Consumer Freedom and five other nonprofits with similarly innocuous names. His industry donors — including restaurant chains whose costs could rise if living conditions for animals have to be improved, and wine and spirits companies that might sell less liquor if MADD has its way — can claim a deduction for charitable donations or business expenses. And since nonprofit groups do not have to disclose their donors, Mr. Berman’s groups offer an even more valuable asset — anonymity for companies that would rather their customers not know they are behind certain attacks.

His critics say Mr. Berman’s organizations are little more than moneymakers for his for-profit communications firm, Berman and Company. Last month, in what appears to be a new tactic by those critics, the Humane Society and MADD filed a complaint with the New York Commission on Public Integrity, charging that the American Beverage Institute and Berman and Company were in fact lobbying and had failed to register with the state as lobbyists.

I, for one, am curious to see how this plays out.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Deep Capture – Part IX,” “The Century of Dispositionism – Part I, Part II, and Part III,”


2 Responses to “The Situation of Public Relations”

  1. […] Trojan horses for hiding the harsh face of corporate greed, as  Adam Benforado writes today at The Situationist, one of esnl’s favorite […]

  2. Tamara Piety said

    Adam – This is an important connection and part of the reason that I have argued in my article “Free Advertising: The Case for Public Relations as Commercial Speech” that the public relations pronouncements of for-profit corporations ought to be subject to the same regulation for truth as advertising because PR essentially IS advertising. The only reason a for-profit corporation engages in these activities is exactly the same as why they engage in product advertising – to sell something, whether it is the company product, the company AS product etc. Here is a link to my article which was published in the Lewis and Clark law review
    The cite is 5. Tamara R. Piety, Free Advertising: The Case for Public Relations as Commercial Speech, 10 LEWIS & CLARK L. REV. 367 (2006) in case that doesn’t work. I hope you keep talking about this important issue because what we see with this is that these entities are not only engaging in promotional activities under the guise of commentary on issues of public concern, they are even more often engaging in informational suppression or disinformation, which turns on its head the whole reason for protecting commercial speech in the first place – the value to consumers.

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