A battle for America’s trust

The war between the fossil fuel industry and Big Green may boil down to who can tell the best story.

 

Meet Parker. The adorably shaggy eight-year-old, clad in yellow rain gear and a floppy blue hat, is the star of a new film from the nonprofit American Rivers, called Parker’s Top 50 Favorite Things About Northwest Rivers. The three-minute-long video is an ode to childhood joy; a montage of Parker leaping, splashing, contemplating and grinning his way though the drenched-green river corridors of the Northwest, set to the tune of a slightly manic rock song. 

Screenshot from an American Rivers film Parker's Top 50 Favorite Things About Northwest Rivers.
Courtesy American Rivers

For Sinjin Eberle, an associate communications director for the organization, the video represents the future of environmental advocacy. “There’s not one word in there about ‘protect’ or ‘restore’ or ‘take action,’ ” Eberle told me over drinks recently in downtown Durango, Colorado. Instead, the video tells a story — the tale of a boy who has quite possibly the best day that any kid has ever had. Eberle and his colleague Amy Kober, who worked with filmmaker Skip Armstrong to create the video, hope it will appeal to people who have become inured to environmental groups’ usual somber fare. 

“Five percent of the population already knows that major dams kill salmon,” Eberle said. “We’ve got those people in our pocket. We want to reach the other 5 or 10 percent” — and here he jerked his thumb toward the bartender, a backcountry snowboarder in his 20s who’s typical of a demographic that sees the effects of climate change and water issues on their lives and sports, but don’t belong to environmental groups and haven’t taken any action. “I want,” Eberle said, “to reach that guy.”

But how do you reach that guy — and others like him, who care about the environment but aren’t easily browbeaten into action or swayed by videos of “some biologist crouching by a stream talking about pollution we can’t see”? Eberle says the answer lies in storytelling. Stories, more than any other form of communication, have the power to connect people emotionally to places, animals and other people they’ve never encountered and might otherwise care nothing about. “In three minutes, Parker made you  love running around the forest again,” Eberle said.

The hope is that such an emotional connection will inspire a new generation of environmentalists to take a stand. In 2013, for example, when American Rivers partnered with photographer Pete McBride to create the powerful film I Am Red about the year’s “most endangered” river, the Colorado, it got 132,000 more views than their “guy-standing-in-front-of-a-river-talking” video about the San Joaquin, the proceeding year’s most endangered river. Kober says all those extra eyeballs led to a significant increase in the number of people who took action online or wrote their Congressmen.

In the days after watching the Parker video, I started noticing other YouTube-sized clips that could easily pass for indie film festival entries, like this series from Conservation International or this one from the National Parks Conservation Association. Aric Caplan, founder and president of Caplan Communications — a D.C.-based PR firm that crafts campaigns for American Rivers and other environmental groups — agrees that the trend is snowballing: “We’ve found that the best way to counter the slick tactics of the fossil fuel industry is through authentic stories.”

Yet environmental groups aren’t the only ones using storytelling to muddy the waters between entertainment and advocacy. Fossil fuel companies, chemical manufacturers and other industrial interests use the same techniques, often in more insidious ways — delivering their messages through carefully crafted “grassroots” organizations, for example, or dubbing a PR flack an “expert” and planting him or her in the nightly news. In some ways, this PR tug-of-war echoes the battle between Big Tobacco and health advocates in the early ’90s, but the current trend is far more sophisticated. Green groups are hiring professional PR firms, investing more heavily in communications, and working with award-winning filmmakers, while fossil fuel companies are trying to make it seem as if they spend less on PR, adopting a less obviously slick, more rootsy look.

At stake in this battle is the social permission of voters — a vital factor in determining to what extent fossil fuel companies will be allowed to continue drilling on public lands and suburban backyards. The Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy think tank, notes that extractive industries these days require more than government approval to drill or dig — they also need the acceptance of the general public, who have the power to tax, put warnings on, and even ban things outright. As Caplan says, it boils down to one question: “Who you gonna trust, industry or environmentalists?”

It's not just permission to drill that's on the line, either — it's permission to conduct business deals that were once exempt from questions of social and environmental justice. Three decades ago, most PR firms didn't shy away from helping deep-pocketed clients like the tobacco industry improve their image. But now there's social pressure for major PR firms to distance themselves from clients who deny climate change, much in the same way that college students are pushing their schools to divest stocks away from fossil fuel companies. In February, the world’s biggest PR company, Edelman, dropped a multi-million dollar contract with the American Petroleum Institute (API), not long after coming under pressure from the Guardian newspaper. Edelman had worked with API for a decade, but when the Guardian reported that Edelman refused to join the ranks of other major PR companies in no longer promoting companies that deny human-caused climate change, Edelman split with API and professed a new stance: “We do not accept clients that seek to deny climate change.”

Yet Edelman’s hasty exit doesn’t mean that fossil fuel’s PR machine is withering. API continues to receive top-notch PR help from former Edelman subsidiary Blue Advertising, and the false-front advocacy groups that Edelman operate continue to influence public opinion. Take “The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports,” an organization that appears to be a grassroots citizen group but in reality is a front for corporate coal, railroad and barge manufacturing interests. The Alliance has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a YouTube channel, solely designed to promote new coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

As PR campaigns become more like stories, journalism, alarmingly, is becoming less discernible from corporate storytelling. Corporations or nonprofits can now buy segments on TV programs that blend seamlessly with regular hosted content, and the same is happening in print: Condé Nast (which owns The New Yorker), recently announced it will no longer separate editorial content from paid advertising content, and will even employ its own editors to write advertising “stories.” “The very premise of (journalism) is that it’s dangerous to have words pass straight from the mouths of CEOs or politicians to the public’s ear,” notes the Columbia Journalism Review. But today, “boundaries between editorial and advertising in journalism newsrooms aren’t what they used to be.”

Anastasia Swearingen, for example, works for oil lobbyist Richard Berman’s PR company. Last year, fronting as a “senior research analyst” for the “Environmental Policy Alliance,” she managed to publish an op-ed in USA TODAY bashing green buildings. Later, the paper issued an apology: “After this column was originally published … USA TODAY learned that the author, Anastasia Swearingen, is employed by public relations firm Berman and Co., not the Environmental Policy Alliance. The Environmental Policy Alliance, a tax-exempt group, has no employees and is housed at the same address as Berman.” 

As Swearingen’s boss Richard Berman told a roomful of oil executives at a leaked Western Energy Alliance meeting last fall, “You have to play dirty to win.”

American Rivers’ Amy Kober says this is not how her group operates. “We want to connect with people’s hearts,” she says. “This wasn’t about, ‘What does market research say?’ ” But American Rivers and other environmental groups are operating in a world where many people no longer know which stories and videos are credible, and though connecting with people’s hearts is a laudable goal, it’s still unclear whether it’ll be enough to combat the “endless war” that Berman and his ilk are waging on environmentalists. “If you put enough information out there, (people) don’t know who is right,” Berman says. And there’s no better way than that, he adds, to ensure the status quo.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News and is based in Durango, Colorado.