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The Whistleblower

An Insider writes on Damage control and the Propaganda Business

By KARI BURNS
    Deadly Spin, Wendell Potter’s new book, tells of his life as a public relations expert and insurance insider. The former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, Potter shares his insight into an industry that operates on automatic—ignoring the individual patients whose lives are so dependent on the coverage by the insurance companies. He tells of  Wall Street’s reactions to the insurance companies’ profits, and the link between profits and stock options and the executive pay in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
   Wendell Potter eventually testified before a Senate panel on health insurance in June, 2009. He was able to testify on how health insurance companies make promises to their clients that they have no intention of honoring, how they evade consumer regulations, and how they conduct PR campaigns to spread propaganda.
     One of the most interesting parts of Deadly Spin describes how the health insurance industry was bent on discrediting Michael Moore and his film, Sicko. The industry kept the drumbeat that Americans don’t want a government takeover of their health insurance system..The public relations efforts never mentioned Moore and his film by name, lest an internal leak would prove embarrassing, so they always spoke of the film and Moore as “Hollywood.” Potter wrote that the insurance industry hired front group APCO to begin a public relations campaign under the name of Health Care America to undermine what they called a “government takeover” of health care. Potter said the insurance industry was relieved that Moore’s Sicko only made about $25 million as opposed to his earlier film, Fahrenheit 9/11 which made $120 million.
    Potter spends a lot of time addressing the responsibility the press has in discerning spin from fact. He points to the tobacco industry as an example of one that used front groups to distort the truth about their products, using “smokers’ rights groups” to create an impression that huge numbers of individual smokers were “spontaneously” speaking out to oppose public health initiatives like smoking bans in restaurants. 
    Today major industries that pollute have used methods to cast doubt on global warming like having experts put their names on papers written by public relations professionals. Potter writes that when the Environmental Protection Agency declared secondhand smoke a Class A human carcinogen, Philip Morris created the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) that used PR companies such as APCO to launch a campaign and recruit members with “down-home sounding” 
businesses to muddy the waters. TASSC worked to label the term, “junk science,” to environmental warnings.

The Spin Business
    Potter gives us hints as to what we would need to do to manipulate the public:
  • Hire a big PR firm that pays no heed to the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics that insists that PR practitioners avoid deceit and identify who their clients are.
  • Set up front groups that have the words, “American” or “freedom” or “choice” in their names.
  • Recruit third parties to join the front groups.
  • Write letters to the editors of publications. Potter says that the public relations firms will do the writing for you.
  • Make friends with the press. Give selected friendly reporters talking points.
  • Conduct bogus surveys or massage the results to get the points that you need.
  • Have your PR firm conduct a duplicitous communications campaign that paints your company in a positive light, no matter what damage you are doing. The PR firm will point to how many people your company hires or how much it contributes to the community, even if your product is negative. Let the PR firm do the dirty work. You’re always the good guy.
    Potter’s Deadly Spin is an eye-opening account of the backroom antics of industries that do harm. You won’t look at issues the same way after you read this book. If you can understand how “spin” works, you will be able to understand the money and tactics used to distort the truth. And we need to know the power propaganda has on us all.


Published: December 14, 2010
Issue: 2010 Philanthropy Issue