Secrets and Lies: How Shandwick PR Tried to Destroy the Rainforests of New Zealand

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This article was first published as "Secrets and Lies: How Shandwick PR Tried to Destroy the Rainforests of New Zealand", PR Watch, volume 7, number 1, First Quarter 2000. The original article was authored by Nicky Hager and Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Advocating "vigorously"

Shandwick, the world's fourth largest PR firm, boasts that it provides a "complete portfolio of public affairs services--from government relations, corporate communications, opinion research, and grassroots mobilization to advocacy advertising, coalition building, and litigation and crisis communications--a single source of expertise, knowledge and reach." It also proclaims that "our work and behaviour must exceed the highest standards of ethics and integrity." It claims to "advocate vigorously, serve creatively and act always with integrity."

In 1999, however, these ethical pretensions were publicly called into question by hundreds of pages of internal documents about a covert, multi-million-dollar PR campaign, led by Shandwick, to "neutralize" environmentalists opposed to rainforest logging in New Zealand. Leaked by an insider who was uncomfortable with the PR campaign, the documents form the basis for our new book, Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-Environmental PR Campaign.

Shandwick's own documents detail a PR campaign that was indeed "vigorous and creative," but hardly compatible with words like "ethics" and "integrity." The nature of Shandwick's tactics prompted us to lodge a complaint to the Public Relations Institute, sparking the first major PR ethics investigation in their history.

Shandwick and its client infiltrated environment groups and systematically attacked critics and potential critics of the logging industry including journalists, academics and even grade-school principals. Sometimes Shandwick went to ridiculous lengths to snuff out the views of activists, including hiring contractors to paint out graffiti on walls and posters stuck on street poles.

While attacking critics of rainforest logging, Shandwick simultaneously arranged for the deceptive creation of a supposedly "independent" pro-logging community group, cultivated allies in academia, industry and politics, and even cultivated support from a few environmental groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Tree Muggers

The client for Shandwick's pro-logging campaign was New Zealand's government-owned logging company, Timberlands West Coast Ltd. Timberlands had been consistently losing ground against the efforts of conservation groups, which were campaigning against further rainforest logging.

In many regions of New Zealand, you can drive all day through farmland, towns and plantation forests without encountering a single stand of the native forest that once covered more than three-quarters of the country. The modern environmental movement in New Zealand grew out of a 1970s campaign to stop this destruction of the country's natural resources. It succeeded in stopping wholesale clearing of the region's natural beech forests, but battles continued throughout the 1980s over logging of the rimu forests, with some forests saved and others cleared and planted in pine trees.

By the 1990s, conservation groups had succeeded in stopping almost all logging on public land. A large majority of New Zealanders believed that logging should be stopped in public native forests, and environmental groups believed that sooner or later public pressure would end the logging entirely. This, of course, would also end the native forest logging business that Timberlands had worked to maintain. Timberlands did not want to leave it to the public and the government to make this decision. Rather than ending logging, in fact, the company planned to expand it dramatically.

The strategy Shandwick devised for Timberlands focused on four central elements: neutralizing opponents, creating public and political credibility for Timberlands, building the impression of an independent public campaign supporting Timberlands, and lobbying at the political level.

"Neutralise Likely Opposition"

The original 1991 PR strategy document, prepared by Shandwick and included in the leaked papers, outlined the priorities for the Timberlands campaign: Item one on the plan was, "Identify and target messages to each target audience: MPs, especially Cabinet, shadow spokespeople, Heads of Departments, Local community leaders, Key national movers." The second item was, "Attract and mobilise key third party support."

Shandwick then went on to spell out how it should deal with environmental opposition to the rainforest logging. "Neutralize likely opposition. Identify key figures. Monitor their program. Counter misconceptions."

"The main thrust," stated another strategy document, "is to limit public support for environmentally based campaigns against Timberlands, thereby limiting public pressure on the political process."

Among the critics to be "neutralized," Timberlands' PR consultants included environmental groups, scientists and members of Parliament. The goal of the PR strategy, according to a 1997 Shandwick "communications program," was to "swing the communications 'pendulum' back in Timberlands' favor."

The public approach involved attempting to discredit the opposition as being small, extreme and guilty of "misinformation." Behind the scenes, more aggressive tactics were employed. To gain advance warning of the plans of conservation groups, Shandwick recommended that Timberlands establish a "monitoring system" capable of "effectively capturing necessary information on the issue." This entailed setting up an intelligence operation: infiltrating, monitoring the actions of opponents and building up information that could be used to attack and discredit environmental groups and individuals.

In several known instances, "moles" attended conservation group meetings to collect information. In 1997, Shandwick arranged monitoring of the Victoria University Environment Group (VEG), which had played an important role in the launch of Native Forest Action (NFA), an activist group engaged in a tree-sitting occupation of Timberlands' Charleston Forest in 1997.

One of Shandwick's staff members had a son who was a student at Victoria University. The PR firm paid him $50 per hour to attend VEG meetings and report back to the PR company on what was said. VEG organisers recall him regularly attending meetings, never offering to help or showing interest in conservation but asking frequent questions about planned protests and other activities in the West Coast native logging campaign.

Every Friday, Shandwick would participate in a weekly phone conference that included staff from Timberlands, Shandwick and a local PR firm, Head Consultants, which also worked on the campaign. One of the main agenda items for each week's phone conference was a discussion of news about Native Forest Action, noting all activities, news of individual members and planned activities. No detail was too small. "NFA: Acknowledged poster put up around Wellington during last few days," one set of minutes recorded. Acting like a police intelligence unit, Timberlands arranged for participants in anti-logging protests to be photographed or videotaped, with this information forwarded to the PR companies.

In February 1998, for example, Timberlands staff took numerous photographs of individuals protesting outside an international forestry conference in Rotorua and circulated copies to Shandwick and Head "to show them what we're up against." At another public demonstration, in which members of Parliament participated, Head Consultants did the videotaping.

In addition to the NFA, Timberlands employed Shandwick to investigate the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (F&B), New Zealand's oldest and largest conservation organization and a longstanding critic of Timberlands. Shandwick chief executive Klaus Sorenson prepared a report in October 1997 titled, "An Analysis of the Recent Financial Performance of Forest and Bird Society." It presented income and expenditure trends and a detailed financial breakdown and sought to identify weaknesses in the society's finances.

Cultivating Allies

Timberlands knew that its generally poor community image would make a stand-alone lobbying campaign unsuccessful. "It will be difficult for Timberlands to succeed as a 'lone voice' against public/environmental opposition," stated an internal PR strategy. "The more allies the company has, preferably influential ones, who are willing to publicly support Timberlands, the easier it will be to counter opposition, and to exert counter-pressure at a political level. For this reason it is important that Timberlands develops its network of alliances and supporters," stated an internal PR strategy.

Ambitiously, Timberlands felt it should try to tap into New Zealanders' pride. "Associate Timberlands West Coast closely with subjects, people, skills and ideas with which New Zealanders closely identify and value," said the PR strategy. Timberlands hoped that this would make it "increasingly difficult to discredit Timberlands West Coast; and 'Mainstream light greens' (i.e. not affiliated with any environmental group) [would] feel justified/comfortable in supporting Timberlands West Coast." This aspect of the strategy entailed attacking uncompromising environmentalists while splitting off more "moderate" groups and encouraging them to publicly back the logging plans. (For details about how this strategy was implemented, see Building Bridges and Splitting Greens)

A similar approach was used to cultivate favorable media coverage while suppressing critical commentary. As far back as 1994, Timberlands planned its "journalist contact program" for courting supportive journalists. The objective, it wrote, was to "develop close contact with a number of key individuals in the press industry whose support is likely to be most influential."

Any journalists writing regularly on the issue, and especially potentially sympathetic environmental and business reporters, were invited on three-day tours of the West Coast as guests of Timberlands. The company carefully planned and controlled every aspect of these guided tours. The visitors were taken to model logging sites where visible scars of the logging operation were few and invisible. Equally importantly, top company officials accompanied the journalists, allowing long hours face-to-face with which to win their captive audience over to their point of view. Evenings of wining and dining with company senior staff provided further opportunities to build up friendly relationships.

Once they returned home, sympathetic journalists were targeted for ongoing contact. When Timberlands wanted lots of positive stories to appear, the PR staff used their skills and contacts to try to build good publicity for the company.

Journalists often rewarded this attention with large feature articles, in which only token and sometimes no mention at all was made of opposing viewpoints from groups like Native Forest Action. Indeed, Timberlands expected articles in return for its money. In one case when no article appeared, Shandwick's Klaus Sorensen took on the job of phoning a reporter "to find out why they haven't produced articles as a result of the media visit."

Unknown journalists were screened, and journalists critical of Timberlands were singled out for harassment. In one example, Timberlands spent thousands of dollars on an all-expenses-paid PR visit to the West Coast for a group of business reporters. One reporter, Richard Inder from the National Business Review, took the ordinary journalistic step of seeking comment on the opposite side of the issue from Forest and Bird, which took the opportunity to send a paper stating its case against logging to the journalists who had gone on the tour.

When the Timberlands bosses found out, they were furious and sent Shandwick to investigate. "It suggests that Richard Inder . . . was working hand in glove with F&B as he accepted the invitation to be part of the visit," wrote Shandwick's Rob McGregor. "We will try to deal with him separately. Klaus [Sorenson] will be following this up." Sorenson, who had worked himself as deputy editor of the National Business Review before becoming a Shandwick executive, contacted the editor of the paper to accuse Inder of unprofessional conduct.

A Friendly Neighborhood Front Group

Even before Timberlands' plan for expanded beech tree logging went public, it developed a strategy, detailed in one of its primary PR strategy papers in 1994, to "be prepared in the event of an anti-beech [logging] campaign to counter-lobby Parliament."

Part of this strategy consisted of "parliamentary lobbying" in Wellington, the capitol of New Zealand. Timberlands described its lobbying as "a tiered approach to focus most information on most influential members--scaling up effort for MPs [members of parliament] whose opposition [is] likely to be most damaging, and those whose support is likely to be most influential."

Lobbying in Wellington alone, however, would be insufficient. Once the logging plan became public, Timberlands knew that groups like Native Forest Action would campaign against it. Its PR advisers decided therefore to "develop key West Coast and national allies to publicly support sustainable beech production as part of a counter-campaign by Timberlands."

Shandwick outlined its plan for developing these allies in a June 1994 paper which urged that resources be put into a "Community Unity Strategy" to overcome what it tactfully described as "some of the unevenness in local support for West Coast forestry and Timberlands."

The company took its case directly to locals through expensive advertising in local newspapers and radio stations. The PR firm also advised creating a community front group that could appear to be a "West Coast voice" for the Timberlands agenda. This idea was developed further at a PR strategy meeting between Shandwick and Timberlands, and the front group was launched under the name of the "Coast Action Network."

To get the group off the ground, Timberlands called in favors from local businesses reliant on the company and also sought to build influence among locals through local sponsorships aimed at maintaining "an overall presence in the community through sporting and cultural events--in order to encourage a feeling of involvement/inclusion in local community and identification of [Timberlands] with West Coast and its people."

The leaked Shandwick papers sum up the manipulative thinking behind these community activities. "Discussion identified a number of opportunities where public relations can be applied to further the interest of Timberlands," said the notes from one meeting between Timberlands and Shandwick, before going on to discuss ways that the company's local charitable giving could be used to further its attack upon Native Forest Action.

An automatic letters to the editor system was also established. Employees of the PR firm drafted responses to any critical letters or news coverage that appeared in the local media. Although the letters were written by Shandwick staffers, they were to be signed by local West Coast residents.

Key messages in the campaign, repeated frequently by Timberlands' spokespeople, included the claim that 500 West Coast families relied on the forestry industry and that loss of local native forest logging jobs would destroy the social fabric of the region. This statistic was misleading, since more than 95% of region's forestry jobs involved plantation forestry rather than native forest logging. By playing on the theme of "jobs versus trees," Timberlands hoped to tap into old "greenies vs locals" prejudices from the bygone era when there were hundreds of native forestry jobs, not the two dozen currently at stake.

At the October 31, 1997 PR telephone conference, Shandwick staff were given the job of dealing with a proposal that had appeared in the newspapers suggesting that some of Timberlands' most ecologically-important rainforests be preserved as a memorial to Princess Diana. The company was predictably unimpressed by the idea, and Shandwick drafted letters opposing the proposal and faxed them to Timberlands for review. "The revised letter to the Minister of Conservation follows together with the letters I have just drafted for the editors of the Greymouth Evening Star and the Westport News," noted a cover sheet from Shandwick's Rob McGregor.

Unlike the usual letters that Shandwick drafted for Timberlands CEO Dave Hilliard, however, these letters were written to go out over the signatures of people with no visible ties to the company. "Thank you for your help with this and for arranging for the Action Group to dispatch the letters on their letterhead and in the name of their organisation," McGregor wrote. "Better this salvo comes from them than Timberlands."

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