How PR firms created “dialogue” structure used by cancer groups and tobacco clients

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In January 2000, The Cancer Letter was working on a story about what seemed to be a strange political structure that was being put together by the American Cancer Society.
The new organization was called the National Dialogue on Cancer, and its objective was to bring everyone interested in cancer into the same political process, and, in the process, to rewrite the National Cancer Act.

The “dialogue,” which didn’t look like anything I ever saw in cancer politics, was being run—and presumably was set up—by Shandwick International, a PR firm.

On a lark, I decided to call RJ Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. and ask whether they are represented by Shandwick.

Why RJR and not, say, Philip Morris? Because RJR was the first company that came to my mind.

The RJR vice president for federal affairs, who was nice enough to take the call, confirmed that the tobacco company does indeed employ a Shandwick subsidiary. We called Shandwick and they had no choice but to confirm that they have tobacco clients, but emphasized that they aren’t involved in marketing.

“Other types of work, including public information campaigns on the terms of the [tobacco] settlement, anti-youth smoking campaigns, and some work on policy issues has been done in some offices,” Shandwick officials acknowledged in a statement to The Cancer Letter. The company also said that “recent events have caused the company to take this policy under review.”

Within days, owing to strict adherence to the conflict policy instituted by CEO John Seffrin, Shandwick was fired (The Cancer Letter, Jan. 21, 2000).

Two-and-a-half years would pass before I would learn about the genesis of the dialogue and the manner in which it allowed Shandwick to double-dip, i.e. serve ACS and RJR, and at least one other client, British American Tobacco.
I would learn this from internal tobacco industry documents that showed that at about the same time—in February 2000—Shandwick was selling the “social reporting process” for BAT.

The social reporting process was intended to help BAT deal with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The documents I got my hands on were obtained from the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository, which was established as a result of that state’s lawsuit against tobacco companies.

The documents included Shandwick’s February 2000 presentation to BAT.

One of the opening slides in the presentation describes BAT’s predicament:

  • “No trust among stakeholders—legislators and their key influencers.

  • “People do not believe you mean what you say, you say one thing and do another e.g. smuggling, attacking the ad ban, high tar products in the developing world.

  • “Seen as part of ‘Big Tobacco’ conspiracy.”

What would be required for BAT to get out of that predicament?

Another Shandwick slide offered the answer:

  • “To take the lead.

    “Rebuild reputation and restock the ‘reputation reservoir.’

  • “Say what you mean, mean what you say.

  • “Establish a baseline of belief, win acceptance for it, draw a line and move forward (dialogue, partnership)…

  • “Identify pragmatic forces in the debate and build bridges…

  • “A bold stroke to capture people’s attention, get taken seriously, win a part in the debate.”

Shandwick further recommended that BAT “commit money to additional investment [in] safer product research,” drop billboard advertising, “commit finance to initiating wider public debate on 18 age limit,” and stop sponsorship of Formula One racing.

Shandwick’s schema: recruit someone who has a good reputation, then have that person or persons convene “stakeholders,” initiating a “dialogue.”

The concept of “stakeholder” should be interpreted broadly. It would include your friends as well as people who seek your demise, because a stake in the heart is still a stake.

These slides from Shandwick’s presentation aimed at BAT illuminated one of the peculiarities of Shandwick’s implementation of the National Dialogue on Cancer.

When the dialogue was getting going, I was amazed to see how much work its proponents invested in trying to convince skeptics to come to the table. My late friend Ellen Stovall, executive director of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, for example, received a massive number of calls from people who put their trust in this process. (Ellen never joined.)
Now, with Shandwick’s slides in hand, I understood why this push to recruit the skeptics was worth the effort: if you bring your friends, your enemies, and everyone in-between to the same table and give them something to do, you will win.

In the case of the National Dialogue on Cancer, ACS recruited former US President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara to lead the effort, and went after former president Jimmy Carter to make the thing bipartisan. After Carter said “No Thanks,” they recruited Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

I spent five years living and breathing the dialogue and the conflicts it shot into ACS and NCI. These conflicts involved PR firms that also represented tobacco companies. Other conflics included pharmaceutical companies and food companies.

Most of these conflicts radiated from the dialogue’s table.

In his quest to end “suffering and death due to cancer” by 2015, NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach, a dialogue board member, used this non-governmental organization to develop NCI programs.

The Cancer Letter was clearly getting in the way. No worries. Von Eschenbach created a look-alike publication, the NCI Cancer Bulletin, which was published at taxpayers’ expense and featured von Eschenbach’s photographs and pronouncements.

Shandwick, the PR firm that launched the dialogue, became Weber Shandwick, following the 2001 merger with the Weber Group and BSMG.

One of the publications I followed at the time was PR Watch. It was a quarterly that was exactly what its name suggests. In 2002, I stumbled across a story that filled in the gaps in my understanding of the dialogue schema used by PR firms. The piece was written by two guys I don’t know: Bob Burton and Andy Rowell.

Burton and Rowell wrote that in their effort to thwart the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, BAT sought to convince its opponents and sundry others “to join it in dialogue.”

Here is how it worked:

A respected political or cultural figure in every BAT territory is found to lead the dialogue, which culminates in production of yearly “social reports.”

“BAT coaxed journalists, health advocates, tobacco control activists and government officials to participate in meetings whose purported mission was to advise the company on how to become a responsible corporate citizen,” Burton and Rowell wrote.

The word “dialogue” figured prominently in the language of social reporting.

“At British American Tobacco, we acknowledge that our products are risky, and we recognize the significant responsibilities of our business,” said BAT Malaysia in its statement on social responsibility.

“We also believe that a company like ours, with a century’s experience of operating in diverse global cultures, which knows our products and its science, supports sensible regulation, and has a long track record of cooperation with governments worldwide, can make a real contribution to progress in reducing the health impact of tobacco,” the statement reads. “Our goal is to seek solutions through dialogue with a wide range of our stakeholders. We see this as a better alternative to conflicts and stalemates which can often characterize debates on tobacco issues.”

According to Burton and Rowell, BAT’s first Malaysian social report described nicotine as “a naturally-occurring substance in the tobacco plant which is thought to have a mild stimulant effect.” The report also noted that tar produced by burning tobacco “is thought to be related to some of the health risks associated with smoking.”

You didn’t have to go to Shandwick to execute your “social reporting” or “dialogue” strateg. It’s simple—anyone can do it.

In my world—oncology—I found Edelman creating tobacco dialogues in Malaysia and Russia (The Cancer Letter, July 25, 2003).

I wrote about it in The Cancer Letter, and I summarized it all in an article I did for PR Watch, bridging my coverage with that of Burton and Rowell.

At that point—two years into coverage of the dialogue—I recognized something remarkable and nuanced about its schema. It looked like an adaptation of public groups that were formed in the 1970s in the former USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries to monitor violations of human rights.

In Moscow at the time, the idea of triggering a “dialogue between the government and society” was an intellectual mainstay in the dissident circles. One such effort, centered around Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, included a representation of dissidents—small-d democrats, a Russian nationalist, several Zionists. These dissidents issued reports monitoring Soviet performance under the 1975 document called the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The group achieved enormous prominence, launching an international movement and contributing to the collapse of Communism. And now it appeared that some brilliant PR strategist has devised a political action strategy that can be used for commercial purposes, which could include propelling a US charity to a position of greater prominence and opposition to tobacco control on behalf of BAT.

This is interesting, because early theory of PR is based on adapting the techniques of engineering public opinion that was being attempted by the Comintern, the organization that was formed to stoke the flames of the World Revolution.

Now, it appeared that someone found a way to adapt a schema that helped bring down Communism. It’s symmetrical.

I should have recognized the similarities earlier. Before diving full-time into covering cancer, I wrote two books on the Soviet human rights movement. One of these books is still around. I gather it’s mostly used in history classes. The other is more of a rarity.

Yet, I didn’t make the connection until reading the Burton and Rowell story in PR Watch, and since at the time I was more interested in pinpointing conflicts—one of which deliciously included an effort to use a “dialogue” to promote a cigarette brand in Russia—I never wrote about what I believe to be the genesis of the dialogues.

Unless the PR strategist who designed the dialogue comes forward and tells me exactly what his or her influences were, it would be impossible to rule out a false-positive. (I hope that person recognizes an invitation.)

Now, in this latest incarnation, the Philip Morris tobacco funding schema appears to work along the same lines as the old ACS and BAT dialogues.

The press release announcing the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World speaks of propelling the tobacco-funded entity into a role in setting the research agenda and creating—you got it—a “dialogue.”

The Philip Morris initiative has the look of an exercise in “social reporting,” lubricated with research funding, and apparently aimed at promoting a class of tobacco products:
“The Foundation’s ongoing activities and research priorities will be informed through a transparent public dialogue, and will be subject to the approval of an independent board of directors. Initial activities are expected to be focused in four areas of need:

“Support research into harm reduction and build research capacity through academic centers of excellence

“Collaboratively build consensus around which interventions can best reduce harm and deaths from smoking and increase smoking cessation

“Measure and report on global progress towards smoking harm reduction
“Identify alternative crops and livelihoods for tobacco farmers as the global demand for tobacco declines.”

It’s a sign of interchangeability of contractors that the Philip Morris dialogue was being announced by Feinstein Kean Health, an Ogilvy company. Any PR firm can slap together a dialogue, and any PR firm can trumpet to the world that dialoguing has commenced.

In 2000, a week after I reported Shandwick’s dual role—representing RJR and ACS—I learned that another of the society’s PR contractors, Edelman Public Relations, did work for ACS in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary while also handling publicity for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (The Cancer Letter, Jan 28, 2000).

The Brown & Williamson gig entailed operating a “mobile media coach,” a 45-foot mobile home, for “Team Kool Green.”

Thanks to Seffrin’s policy, those Edelman folks lost their ACS gig before you could say “It’s so good to be Kool.”

And that is the legacy Seffrin has now so publicly, so dramatically set adrift.


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