A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism

12 Min Read

August 11, 2022

Melissa Aronczyk is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication & Information at Rutgers University and the co-author, with Maria I. Espinoza, of A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism (Oxford, 2022).

What is PR, and what does it have to do with how we see the world? When most of us think of public relations – if we think about it at all – we picture master manipulators weaving lies and doubts into the truths we hold. By this logic, undoing these propagandists’ machinations would restore the truth and facts to their proper place. 

The way PR works is actually a lot more complicated. Public relations is not so much about obscuring the truth as it is about creating legitimacy for a certain way of thinking. For instance, PR for major extractive industries promotes fossil fuel consumption as a necessary support to our way of life. It connects energy overconsumption to our habits of living, and suggests that one is not possible without the other: We live by means of fossil fuels. But as Cara Daggett writes, this is not a necessary or natural fact but a contingent imposition. In order for us to understand how we have absorbed the “mythologies” that naturalize a carbon democracy, we need to understand how these mythologies are created and conveyed to various publics. 

After years of combing through corporate and political archives, conducting hours upon hours of interviews, and engaging in ethnographic fieldwork in multiple sites, my co-author (Maria I. Espinoza) and I came to the realization that the public relations industry is a major player – indeed an essential fulcrum – in the making and circulation of these fossil fuel mythologies. By understanding the role public relations plays in a carbon democracy, we can understand how PR is integral to and continues to shape that system. 

Our book is clearly influenced by Timothy Mitchell’s ideas in Carbon Democracy. If I had to distill his book into a programmatic statement or guide for my own thinking, I would put it this way: Carbon democracy is not about a democratic system stopped up by fossil fuels. It is about a democratic system created by fossil fuels. 

John Durham Peters applies a similar style of thought in his breathtaking book, The Marvelous Clouds. This book develops a theory of elemental media: the inextricable connection of nature and media, the interplay of habits and habitat. As Peters points out, we do not live with media; we live by means of media: “Media are not only about the world… they are the world” (p. 21).   

It is by taking the ideas of Mitchell and Peters to heart that we developed the understandings that led to A Strategic Nature. The big picture of A Strategic Nature is that in order for a public problem to be understood – both as public and as a problem in our current democracy – it needs to be formulated in a particular way. And that way involves a combination of information, mediation, and publicity. That’s the lens we bring to the emergence of environmentalism as an idea in America. The book covers the long twentieth century of environmental awareness and shows how publicity in the form of public relations has mediated and rendered legitimate certain ways of thinking about the environment while leaving other ways behind. 

The history of carbon democracies (and of elemental media) is also an occupational history. It teaches us who controls the systems, who creates the infrastructures, and who manages the frames through which we come to see certain ways of being and doing as normal or legitimate and other ways as extreme or even impossible. 

That is why A Strategic Nature focuses on the public relations consultants who drive the development of environmental PR. What are the motives, rationales and self-understandings that guide those who practice “green” PR? Where does environmental public relations come from, and how is it tied up with the history of environmental awareness (for, as we argue in our book, PR and environmentalism are inextricable phenomena)? And how have these consultants created a set of conditions in which we have largely failed to recognize environmental destruction and climate catastrophe as public problems?

The history of carbon democracies (and of elemental media) is also an occupational history. It teaches us who controls the systems, who creates the infrastructures, and who manages the frames through which we come to see certain ways of being and doing as normal or legitimate and other ways as extreme or even impossible. 

While there are several characters in our book, E. Bruce Harrison stands out, both for his pioneering role in shaping the incipient field of environmental PR and for the surprising relationship we forged, which gave me a perspective I could never have anticipated. 

In February 2017, encouraged by my colleague Bob Brulle, I sent E. Bruce Harrison a short email. I was nervous about contacting a person whose fifty-year career consisted of helping to legitimize the worst polluting sectors of industry: automobiles, chemicals, pesticides, plastics, coal, natural gas, petroleum, steel, tobacco, trucks, and transport. Since critical research on business or political actors often relies on the conditions of access, I was concerned that he would ignore my outreach; or worse, refuse to speak to me. 

To my immense surprise, a reply came not 3 hours later, inviting me to Washington, DC, where Harrison was then teaching as an adjunct instructor at Georgetown University in the Communications and Public Relations Masters program. Thus began a two-year exchange of visits, emails, phone calls, and, most importantly, documents from Harrison’s personal library. 

Envelopes containing E. Bruce Harrison Company documents and notes from E. Bruce Harrison to the author.

In his late 80s when I met him in Washington, DC, Harrison was impeccably dressed, gentle and unassuming, his Southern manners intact from his Alabama upbringing. Our first interview consisted of constructing a loose biographical timeline. In the early 1960s, he began his PR career with the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the major trade association for the industry (founded in 1872, it is today known as the American Chemistry Council). Nine months later, when the publication of Silent Spring by the biologist Rachel Carson caused a massive communications crisis, Harrison was part of the PR response, a counterattack that attempted to denigrate the author and her findings about the role of chemicals in environmental destruction. As the historical record shows, this counterattack failed, helping instead to bolster the American environmental movement. It was a lesson learned for Harrison. His future public relations efforts on behalf of the fossil fuel industry would prove far more subtle, developing a form of “corporate environmentalism” that allowed polluting companies to practice ever more sophisticated greenwashing.

Harrison went on to found an independent PR firm, E. Bruce Harrison Company, in 1973, the first PR firm to focus exclusively on “green” public relations. By the time he sold his firm in 1996, Harrison had worked for dozens of the most notorious fossil fuel clients and their trade associations. He also created cross-industry coalitions among these clients so they could speak in a unified voice against environmental laws that could affect their businesses. The coalitions were issue-specific, focusing on, for instance, clean air or clean water provisions, CFCs, or global warming. One such group, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), formed in the late 1980s to oppose the spectre of mandatory carbon emission reductions. The GCC cast doubt on climate science, monitored and contested political debate, and publicized cultural frameworks that questioned the benefits of carbon regulation for Americans (Figure 2).

“It’s Not Global and It Won’t Work.” Global Climate Coalition advertisement, The Washington Post, 10 September 1997: A18.

When I talk about Harrison with various audiences, one of the questions I get most often is, How could he do it? Did he experience remorse for having contributed so heavily to the climate crisis we are now in? This is a complex question. It is important, I believe, to avoid the classic good-guy/bad-guy narratives that understandably characterize a lot of research on environmental problems. There is considerable high-quality research on the social organization of anti-environmentalism; and we tend to understand that organization in terms of dichotomies of power, political polarization, and anti-reflexivity.

But if we think about the business of PR, things get more complicated. Public relations is hiding in plain sight all the time. So many of our modern innovations are touched by PR. It forms part of the structures of democracy that we hold up as social ideals. Think of how we value the participation of many voices in democratic debate; the spirit of compromise and collaboration that infuses political leaders’ claims to reach across the aisle; the idea of transparency as a public good, and the belief that more information is the source of better knowledge. All of these principles underlie the work of PR.

If we classify PR only in terms of misinformation, spin, or lies, we miss the big picture of how ideas and ideals of publicity are embedded in our modern democracy. There is a nexus of information, mediation, and publicness that structures the work of PR. Harrison understood this. He understood his role as bringing different voices forward, of seeking compromise or collaboration; of creating sources of information. That he was doing this on behalf of intensely problematic clients who deliberately obstruct environmental and climate action is obviously worthy of critical scrutiny. But we gain more by understanding the larger system in which the practice of PR operates, and how the ideas he put forward gained legitimacy in the public sphere. Public relations is not just about the medium or the message. It is a technology of legitimacy. It establishes structures of advocacy that legitimizes the political and economic conditions in which fossil fuel democracies thrive.

Perhaps, too, this is a call to think more about the charismatic authority of certain people and certain professions. This is relevant because it helps us to see how culture shapes the natural environment; what the narratives rendered legitimate by “green” public relations enable us to do – what questions we ask – but also what these narratives prevent us from seeing or asking questions about. Beyond the risks of imminent climate catastrophe are the risks that we do not ask the questions that let us fully understand the culture of publicity and how it has affected our ability to respond to it.

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