Exposing the deny and delay corporate playbook (review of Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook)

I’m professionally conflicted.

My days are spent in the company of scientists who are doing their part to build us a brighter world.

I also work in public relations. It’s an industry that’s helped corporations wage a decades-long war on science and scientists.

“PR firms have been essential to scaling and disseminating denial campaigns locally, nationally and globally,” says Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor with the department of environmental studies at New York University and author of The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies and Make a Killing in the Corporate World.

Denial’s an investment for corporations and delay’s the deliverable for PR firms, says Jacquet. Their mutual goal is the indefinite blocking of litigation, government regulation and swings in public opinion.

“The risks of scientific knowledge are as much about the public’s understanding of those risks as they are about the evidence of those risks. Therefore, the defense against scientific knowledge occurs on a battlefield of communications.”

There’s no bigger battle than global warming. Corporations are using the same playbook dreamed up by PR firm Hill and Knowlton back in the 1950s, according to Jacquet.

First came the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, which hired the firm to help block the introduction of mandatory testing of the food supply for chemicals. Big Tobacco followed, wanting help in discrediting the link between smoking and cancer. The deny and delay was drafted. Cigarette makers got together and funneled $450 million to the Council for Tobacco Research which in turn funded more than 7,000 “scientific” papers. Other Hill and Knowlton clients included an asbestos company in the 1960s and the plastics industry in the 1970s which wanted to “refocus public and congressional attention and to reshape the national debate about the effect of plastics on American society.”

The well-used deny and delay playbook wages war on science and scientists across four fronts. “After a century of scheming, during which the tactics have been refined, disseminated, scaled and globalized by public relations firms, it is clear that corporate scientific denial also has a particular gestalt, with a four-pronged pattern to the approach and the arguments: challenge the problem, challenge causation, challenge the messenger and challenge the policy.”

So how do corporations challenge the problem of scientific findings that can devastate the bottom line?

Start by hiding or destroying internal evidence. “The destruction or concealment of internal knowledge is easier than destroying or suppressing knowledge that was created outside the corporation,” says Jacquet.

Deny outright that there’s a problem. “The complete denial of a problem is a bold stance but one that has proven effective.”

Pledge to look into the problem but acknowledge it’ll take time because it’s so complex.

Make the problem small and unworthy of a big fix. “Minimize the problem by showing it is inconsequential or affects a very small number of people.”

Point out there are bigger problems to worry about.

Announce there’s no longer a problem because it’s in the past.

Change language to eliminate the problem. The tobacco industry once called cancer “biological activity” and the fossil fuel industry managed to replace “global warming” with the less scary “climate change” back in 2002.

Play with statistics to eliminate the problem or change the scale of analysis to minimize the problem.

Point out that people are better off not knowing about the problem – what they don’t know will hurt them less.

And if all else fails, declare that it’s not the corporation’s fault. “Denial of causation is arguably the bread and butter of scientific denial. Scientific knowledge is at its most remarkable and perhaps most vulnerable when establishing a causal relationship.”

As Jacquet shows, corporations don’t have to fool all the people all the time. To throw sand in the gears, corporations only need to confuse enough of us to sow doubt and confusion. And sadly, there’s no shortage of hired hands who are schooled in the darks arts of denial and willing to roll out the playbook for a generous payday.

“The outlines of the strategy to challenge science can be elusive and it can take years or decades to even partially make sense of, in no small part due to secrecy of the corporation and its network of accomplices,” says Jacquet.

She’s done us a favour by skillfully exposing that secrecy and showing how we’re being duped. Jacquet also offers a playbook of her own to defend science.

This review first ran in the Aug. 12 Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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