THE PR FIRM FROM HELL
As published in the June 30th, 2009 edition of the Fresno Community Alliance newspaper
(First of two parts)
By Lloyd G. Carter
Cesar Chavez knew the power of a good march. He led by example and he never stopped trying until he found a way. And this is exactly what we are going to do. We never will stop until we find a way, find a way together here, because this is the right thing to do, because we need water, we need water, we need water, we need water [chanting with crowd].
Gov. Schwarzenegger, on April 17, at the San Luis Reservoir, following a four-day grower-funded march in which non-union farmworkers were paid to walk 50 miles from Mendota. Chavez’ United Farm Workers union did not participate. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta called it shameless exploitation of the late labor leader’s legacy.
The masters of “astroturfing” are trying to convince you, the media, California and Washington, D.C. that San Joaquin Valley farmworkers’ new best friend is Big Agribusiness, the same industry that has exploited them for decades. Say what?
Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturfing as a "program that involves the manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them." In other words, rich people with a lot of money but no popular support for their cause (getting richer), will create the illusion of broad public support by half truths, manipulation, disinformation, spin doctoring, creating false impressions, and cash. It also involves ghost writing op-ed columns and letters to the editor from little people, to generate the perception there is widespread public support for the client’s position. Grassroots is bottom up. Astroturf is top down.
The late Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a vice-presidential candidate and a lobbyist, is credited with coining the term "astroturf lobbying" to describe the synthetic grassroots movements conjured up by powerful lobbying and public relations firms. Astroturfing is specifically prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, the national association for members of the public relations profession.
But that hasn’t stopped the spin doctors at Burson-Marsteller (B-M), the astroturfing PR firm that has been hired by the California Latino Water Coalition (created around 2006-2007), headed by comedian Paul Rodriguez, and Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez, co-chairs of the coalition, and technical advisor Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager at the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents federal irrigation districts on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley from Madera County south to Bakersfield.
B-M has been helping the Friant growers for three years, trying to derail the lawsuit settlement to restore a living San Joaquin river to 60 miles of dry riverbed on the San Joaquin Valley floor. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes has been the most outspoken of the settlement critics and has called for the Governor’s resignation for failing to push new water projects hard enough. (Nunes seems blissfully unconcerned California is facing a $24 billion budget deficit.)
MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow, in a March telecast, called B-M “the PR firm from Hell” and said it had been hired to improve the “image” of AIG, the company which has received $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money. (You can see Maddow ripping B-M on YouTube below.)
How much B-M is being paid by the growers who fund the Latino Water Coalition - if it is being paid - is not publicly available. No one in the mainstream media has inquired about the financing, except the New York Times, which noted in a story on the mid-April, four-day “March for Water” that farmworkers were paid to participate. Classic astroturfing tactics.
Founded in 1953, B-M is now one of the largest public relations firms in the world, and in 2000 was the first PR outfit to hit $300 million in revenues. In 1999, Harold Burson was named by PR Week magazine and website as the PR industry’s “most influential person of the 20th Century.” The PR Watch website has considerable material on B-M’s past and present outrages. Big name employees include George W. Bush’s first press secretary, Karen Hughes, and his last press secretary, the acid-tongued, irritable Dana Perino. However, the agency is not just staffed with Republican mudslingers. Spinmaster Mark Penn, the staunchly anti-union polling consultant and former chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, is the current Chief Executive Officer of B-M.
B-M’s client list includes a who’s who of corporate scoundrels and tin horn dictators, including:
1. Blackwater USA - After the private security firm killed 17 Iraqi civilians, they turned to B-M for “crisis management.” Former B-M executive Robert Tappan, who had been a State Department official, worked at the PR firm’s lobbying subsidiary, BKSH & Associates. Tappan helped Blackwater founder and head Erik Prince prepare for his testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. (In February, Blackwater, purportedly on the advice of B-M, changed its name to the mysterious Xe, pronounced Zee.)
2. Babcock & Wilcox, manufacturers of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, hired B-M to “manage” public perception after the 1979 meltdown.
3. Nigeria’s brutal regime employed B-M in the late 1960s to counteract allegations it was committing genocide in the breakaway province of Biafra. “Crisis management” was also provided the Indonesian regime accused of abuses of its citizens.
4. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, at the behest of the Argentinian military dictatorship, headed by General Jorge Videla, B-M organized a campaign against Argentinian human rights organizations which were contending a “Dirty War” against the populaton was taking place, including the murder and disappearance of thousands of people. In her book “The Shock Doctrine”, Naomi Klein wrote:
“Victor Emmanuel, the Burson-Marsteller public relations executive who was in charge of selling the Argentine junta's new business-friendly regime to the outside world, told a researcher that violence was necessary to open up Argentina's "protective, statist" economy. "No one, but no one, invests in a country involved in a civil war," he said, admitting that it wasn't just rebels who died. "A lot of innocent people were probably killed," he told author Marguerite Feitlowitz, but, "given the situation, immense force was required." ”
5. Saudi Arabia’s medieval royal government has employed B-M for more than 30 years to promote its interests and image. B-M prepared U.S. advertisements for Saudi Arabia following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, due, in part, to the fact 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers were Saudi citizens.
6. B-M handled public relations for Union Carbide Corporation following the 1984 explosion and disaster at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India which killed 2,000 employees and neighbors and injured or blinded thousands more.
7. B-M set up the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris to fight tobacco regulation in the early 1990s.
8. Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF), which Burson-Marsteller created on behalf of chemical companies from the U.S., Israel and Japan who wanted to avoid an EU ban on bromine flame retardants suspected to have serious environmental and health impacts. For years the BSEF (lobbyists from the Brussels offices of Burson-Marsteller) lobbied against the EU ban on these substances, without clearly disclosing the nature of the group and the clients.
Major companies in the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries currently utilize B-M’s services, according to B-M’s own website. In 2006, the company gave 57 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates.
B-M, according to the May 17, 2007 issue of The Nation magazine, is owned by an even larger PR empire called the WPP Group. The decision to hire Mark Penn as the head of B-M was heavily influenced by Howard Paster, President Clinton's chief lobbyist to Capitol Hill and an influential presence inside WPP. "Clients of stature come to Mark [Penn]constantly for counsel," claimed Paster, who informally advised Hillary Clinton. The press release announcing Penn's promotion noted his work "developing and implementing deregulation informational programs for the electric utilities industry and in the financial services sector." (Italics added.)
Both these PR and lobbying efforts - to deregulate energy and financial services - led to the California electricity crisis and manipulation of the state’s energy supply by Enron, the 2003 blackout in the Northeastern U.S. and the current collapse of the financial services sector.
So, what then does B-M expect to do for the California Latino Water Coalition? B-M’s Patrick George, who works out of B-M’s Sacramento office is listed as the media contact on the Latino Water Coalition press releases. The B-M website boasts that it has won the last nine California statewide initiative campaigns it has been involved in and it was expected to be involved in a $10 billion water bond issue in 2008 before the economy collapsed. There will undoubtedly be an effort to put another water bond on the 2010 or 2012 California ballot.
Some Western San Joaquin Valley growers acknowledge they are contributing to the Latino Water Coalition. It is clear the poverty-stricken farmworkers aren’t paying the tab, and that it is agribusiness bankrolling the operation. The coalition website (www.gotwater.org  ) and KMJ radio commentator Ray Appleton, a major supporter of the Coalition, both solicit donations from the general public. Appleton does it on air. Mario Santoyo said on former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry’s radio show that Comedian Rodriguez is not being compensated for any of his efforts. In an interview with the Yuma, AZ newspaper Rodriguez called himself the “poster boy” and claimed Cesar Chavez was “like an uncle” to him. Presuimably, the Friant growers were paying B-M big bucks before the PR firm got involved in the Latino Water Coalition.
The transparent objective of B-M’s astroturfing is to put a “human face” on efforts to get more multi-billion dollar water projects built with taxpayer funds to: (1) meet the water needs of industrial farming operations of the western San Joaquin Valley, and (2) halt (or replace) the loss of water by southeastern San Joaquin Valley growers in Tulare and Kern counties due to the restoration of the San Joaquin River.
These are among the public relations objectives:
1. Conflate the interests of growers who want water with the needs of farmworkers who need jobs, so that it appears the largely Latino farmworker population fully supports the efforts of growers to get more taxpayer-financed cheap water, even while the basic needs of the farmworkers, such as decent wages, clean drinking water, and decent housing and working conditions, continue to go unmet.
2. Make it appear as if the entire San Joaquin Valley is threatened with reversion to desert because of a “two-inch bait fish” instead of revealing that it is only the junior water rights holders who are suffering irrigation cutbacks and that thousands of growers with senior water rights are getting a full allotment this year. Emphasize a “man-made drought” as the problem, not the real drought which is occurring (according to state officials). Some growers are making fat profits selling water at extortionate prices to their fellow water-short farmers.
A May 15 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein from Lester Snow, head of the California Department of Water Resources, indicated that Westlands Water District, through Delta deliveries, carryover, groundwater, transfers and exchanges is actually getting 86 percent of its normal water supply this year. The groundwater, of course, is of low quality in many cases and cannot be quickly replaced.
3. Demonize environmentalists and brand them as elitists from San Francisco who care more about a “minnow” (i.e., the Delta Smelt) than they do about human beings, especially the tens of thousands of farmworkers who will lose their seasonal jobs which now pay an average of $8,000 a year.
4. Reduce the crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to a black and white issue of “fish versus farmers” or “fish versus food” and avoid the complexities of Delta restoration and the hierarchy of water rights. Rarely or never mention salmon (much less the commercial salmon industry), or steelhead, or killer whales, or sturgeon in simplifying the issue. Make it the smelt - a bait fish - versus human beings.
5. Ignore the concerns of the United Farm Workers union and the Teamsters union (which represents farmworkers in the Valley) and ignore or demonize environmental justice advocates. Don’t get involved in supporting bills in the state legislature to improve the lives and working conditions of farmworkers. Big Ag routinely opposes those bills and the governor vetoes them.
6. Stage marches and rallies in the tradition of Cesar Chavez, and invoke Chavez’ name where politically expedient, and conceal the fact that the marchers are being paid to participate. In a slickly-produced YouTube video, Comedian Rodriguez said when he was a boy he had marched with Cesar to help unionize farmworkers and was now asking people to participate in the mid-April “March for Water” to help growers in Cesar Chavez’ memory. Dolores Huerta shakes her head at this tactic.
7. Because growers, particularly large corporate operations, billionaire farmers like Stewart Resnick, and wealthy family mega-farms (like the Woolfs of the Westlands), have never been particularly sympathetic figures in the news media, the decision was made to make Latino farmworkers the “human face” of this astroturfing campaign, perhaps to sway urban Latino state legislators.
Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” frequently runs a montage of video clips showing Republican (or Democrat) politicos mouthing the same sound bite of the day, which usually comes from a talking points paper prepared by a PR firm. That’s what has been occurring the last two years with the “human face” buzz phrase.
July 2, 2007 - Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, who represents the Westlands Water District area, and allows his public office phone number and staff to be utilized by the Latino Water Coalition, told a House Subcommittee that cutbacks of irrigation water to protect the Delta Smelt was causing hardship among farmworkers, stating, “There is a very human face to the decisions that are made.”
July 24, 2008 - Fresno Bee Capitol correspondent E.J. Schultz, writing about a grower-financed rally in Sacramento, in which busloads of farmworkers were at the Capitol building to show the “human face” of water politics, wrote:
“Wednesday's rally was designed to give a human face to the state's water woes. At least 300 farmworkers, most from the Valley's parched west side, marched and carried homemade signs declaring "agua es vida," or water is life, and "agua = trabajo," or water equals work.”
April 14, 2009 - Laura King Moon, Assistant General Manager of the State Water Project, which represents the mega-farms of the western Tulare Basin, including the 150,000 acre J.G. Boswell cotton empire, issued this statement: “Today, the California Latino Water Coalition began the first day of a four-day march across the San Joaquin Valley to highlight the severe water shortage that grips the Valley's farms, cities and jobs, as well as our broader
state. Their goal is to raise statewide and national awareness of the water crisis that faces them and to put a human face on one of the most important issues facing California today.”
April 14, 2009 - A column by Fresno Bee writer Bill McEwen carried the headline
“March to put Human Face on Water Crisis.” McEwen wrote that with a “recession and a third year of drought intensifying the state’s troubles – and putting a human face on our water problems - solutions might be coming. This human face will be shown to the nation and the world when the California March for Water begins this morning in Mendota.”
April 17, 2009 - Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), appeared at the conclusion of the March for Water and stated to a crowd estimated at 3,000 people (Coalition officials put the estimate at 10,000) that the water crisis highlighted “the human face of the misery evoked by water shortages.”
KMJ broadcaster Ray Appleton has repeatedly said on his noon hour show the purpose of the Latino Water Coalition is to put a “human face” on the campaign.
It must be admitted B-M’s astroturfing campaign in the San Joaquin Valley has been remarkably successful. The “human face” of the new water projects campaign is now that of the downtrodden farmworker, not the rich grower.
But Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, is not fooled and calls the Latino Water Coalition an obvious front group for the growers which is exploiting Cesar Chavez’ legacy. She said Cesar was an ardent environmentalist and would never have participated in the April March for Water or demonized the environmentalists. She also notes the Latino Water Coalition has not lobbied for bills to make it easier for farmworkers to unionize nor has the coalition demanded a living wage, decent housing and clean drinking water for farmworkers before any new dams are built. The governor, she notes, has vetoed bills to help farmworkers unionize.
The Valley’s newspaper and television coverage of the Latino Water Coalition has been extensive and, at times, almost fawning. No hard questions are being asked about where the money is coming from or why the Latino Water Coalition is not lobbying in Sacramento and Washington for improved working conditions, decent housing and clean drinking water for the farmworkers they claim are part of their coalition. However, outside the Valley, the sales job has been tougher, particularly in the Nation’s Capitol.
Thus, more “marches” are being planned, including a protest outside the new Fresno federal building on July 1, and the air transport of an unspecified number of farmworkers to Washington, D.C. to show lawmakers the “human face” of failing to build more multi-billion dollar water projects to primarily benefit agribusiness. Presumably, non-union farmworkers will have to be recruited and paid to participate in this latest stunt. The astroturf needs a mowing.
Part Two of this series will focus on the roles of Comedian Paul Rodriguez, Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez, growers’ employee Mario Santoyo, KMJ radio commentators Ray Appleton and Inga Barks, Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson and others in the B-M astroturfing campaign. Lloyd G. Carter has been writing about San Joaquin Valley water issues for 40 years, including 20 years as an award-winning reporter for United Press International and the Fresno Bee.