The following comments are taken verbatim from a pitch for money made by a leading Washington, DC, communications firm, Berman and Company, to a gathering of energy executives in June 2014. The consultants candidly argue in favour of a campaign to delegitimize environmental activists, revealing some of the tactics involved in modern communications campaigns. The transcript was leaked to the New York Times in October by an oil industry executive who attended the event and was offended by the strategy.
Rick Berman: If you’re on offense, there are groups out there and I don’t need to name names or what have you, well yeah we’ll take the labour unions for example. I am well known for going after the labour unions for a thousand different reasons. And people say, “Well, what’s your offense?” I say, “I get up every morning and I try and figure out how to screw with the labour unions. That’s my offense.” I’m just figuring out how am I going to reduce their brand.
When I’m on offense, I’m going to reframe the issue. I’m not going to allow the conversation to be based upon on how somebody else has framed the issue. Because then I’m gonna be on defense. I’ll be arguing over what they said.
Repositioning the opposition suggests telling people, “Oh, you think that this group is a group that does X, well, let me tell you, what they are really doing is Y. I don’t care what they tell you that they are doing, they are doing something else.”
Now the unions right now …have been pushing for an increase of the minimum wage at the federal level. So they had this bus tour and they are going around on this big bus. They go all around the country with this bus tour saying, “We need to raise the minimum wage by 40 percent to $10.10.” And so what we’ve done, because sometimes we do things what you would call “street theater,” what we’ve done is that we’ve been chasing this bus around with our own bus or our own truck and so wherever they go we go.
We’re reframing this debate so it’s not just about going up to $10.10, there’s some other things that people need to think about… We’re not experts and so you don’t want them trying to be experts. But if you put enough information out there and say, “Well it could go to $10.10, but you could also lose a lot of jobs, the Congressional Budget Office says you can lose a lot of jobs.” And again, we got a lot of ads on this thing.
You get in people’s mind a tie. They don’t know who is right. And you get all ties because the tie basically ensures the status quo.
People are not prepared to get aggressive and in moving one way or another. I’ll take a tie any day if I’m trying to preserve the status quo.
Jack Hubbard: I have been working with Rick for eight years now. And prior to that, I was working on Wall Street. And I sort of came to a revaluation when I was working on Wall Street. I became convinced that everyone that I was working with and everyone that I was working for were a bunch of crooks. And I became very very dispirited. And I then made the decision that I was going to move to Washington D.C., and now all the crooks go by “Senator” or “Congressman.”
But, I can honestly say that the eight years that I have spent here working with Rick have been nothing but fun and more importantly, as you’ll see in this presentation some of the metrics that we have for [inaudible] up to on the environmental front, we really are making a difference…
And what we’re doing here is so important because the implications if you folks lose this thing, they will obviously be bad for you, it will be bad for your bottom lines, it will be bad for your employees, but it’s bad for the state, and it’s bad for 68,000 people or even more who could lose their job.
Prior to us getting involved in Colorado…we received some support from some companies and foundations who had seen some of these past ads and campaigns that we ran, going after the Humane Society and other people, and they said, “My god, we need this for our industry. For our cause right now because these anti-energy groups are getting a free pass and no one is going on offense against them and hitting back hard.”
So we received funding to start something called Big Green Radicals. And Big Green Radicals was and continues to be a national campaign and the initial targets of that campaign were the Sierra Club, NRDC [National Defense Research Council], and Food and Water Watch.
And if you’re wondering why those three organizations frankly, were the targets of this public educational campaign, while they’re all unique in general, they’re all very, very powerful nationally. They’re all very, very powerful in Washington D.C. when it comes to lobbying. They are behind some of the most stringent and nasty anti-energy initiatives and legislation out there. And most of them have very, very large budgets.
So, we thought how are we going to kick off this campaign? Take the typical Berman and Company model, in terms of undermining these folks credibility, and diminish their moral authority.
So one of the first things we did was, we said, well, let’s make this a little personal. Let’s find out whether these people are practicing what they preach. And what we did was we conducted a whole bunch of intense opposition research digging into their board of directors, and we pulled all of the title information for all the vehicles that they own. And we released the report, of which you’ll see the findings in a minute, but it really took off and spread like wildfire because it was a really damning report against them and their board of directors.
So, our website is biggreenradicals.com, and there is a significant Colorado page. And what we do on that site, I’m going to show you the online video in a minute, but in the right-hand column we dig into every group. We list their money. We list their funders. We list their radical positions. And then we do have a section on every single activist. Their rap sheets, their criminal records that they have. We’re really making this personal. We’re trying to make it so they don’t have any credibility with the public, with the media, or with the legislators.
But I will just warn you even if you do make this go away, what happens is that, it’s actually a phrase that Rick has told me, but when the activists lose if they do lose, they never say, “We lost.” They say, “We didn’t win yet.” And they are going to keep pushing this thing. And Rick is going to talk about the endless war that you guys are going to be facing in this state.
Rick Berman: This offensive campaign that is designed to attack is not a positive campaign. A lot of times people say, “Well, we shouldn’t be that nasty, we shouldn’t be that aggressive.” As I’ve told you, sometimes you can marry that aggressive with parody. But there is a place for this. There is no silver bullet in these campaigns. There’s an offense. There’s a defense. There’s a pro side. There’s an anti side. You can war game this pretty easily.
But this is something that quite frankly, a lot of people leave on the table. I’ve had clients say to me, “Well you know, I don’t really want to attack, that’s not who we are.” I say, “Well, you know, you can either win ugly or lose pretty.” You know, you figure out where you want to be. But sometimes this is what you need.
I’ve had people say to me at times that, “They characterize us in a campaign as being the guys with the black helicopters.” And to some degree that’s true. We’re doing stuff to diminish the other sides’ ability to operate…
Fear and anger have to be part of this campaign. If you want to win, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to get people to like the oil and gas industry over the next few months.
There is no sympathy for the oil and gas industry. So we’re not going to tap into the sympathetic, “Oh, I’m sympathetic for all those poor guys who are running the energy companies.”
What you got to do is get people fearful of what is on the table and then you got to get people angry over the fact that they are being misled. No one likes being lied to. No one likes being told, “Oh, this won’t hurt.” And so, that is central to the messaging campaign going forward…
This is an endless war. What I like to do when I come up against some of these organizations, you saw some of the budgets some of these people have. I look at their tax returns and if they got a pension plan, and it’s a well-funded pension plan, I know that these people are not going away. And so people say, “Well, if we just win this fight.”
But no, these people are in business to keep this going. It is a business. They are in the public policy business. They are in the business to change laws. And you change laws by changing people’s behavior. You change laws by changing people’s attitudes, which in turn is followed by legislators changing their opinion. So, think of it as an endless war. And you have to budget for it.
The last thing that I’ll tell you: Jack mentioned that there was some companies who have been supporting what we’re doing, and who have pledged to do some stuff in the future. People always ask me one question all the time, “How do I know that I won’t be found out as a supporter of what you’re doing?”
We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for 20 something years in this regard. And to the degree that anybody is concerned about that I will tell you there are all sorts of ways, all sorts of firewalls that have been established to get this done [anonymously].