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Public Relations' Role in Manufacturing Artificial Grass Roots Coalitions

When a corporation wants to oppose environmental regulations, or support an environmentally damaging development, it may do so openly and in its own name. But it is far more effective to have a group of citizens or experts -- and preferably a coalition of such groups -- which can publicly promote the outcomes desired by the corporation while claiming to represent the public interest.


When such groups do not already exist, the modern corporation can pay a public relations firm to create them.


The use of such 'front groups' enables corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern. These front groups lobby governments to legislate in the corporate interest, to oppose environmental regulations, and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability.


Front groups also campaign to change public opinion, so that the markets for corporate goods are not threatened and the efforts of environmental groups are defused.


Merrill Rose, executive, vice president of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, advises companies:

Put your words in someone else's mouth... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are. Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often with the media.


The names of corporate front groups are carefully chosen to mask the real interests behind them but they can usually be identified by their funding sources, membership and who controls them.

Some front groups are quite blatant, working out of the offices of public relations firms and having staff of those firms on their boards of directors. For example, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions shares office space with the Society of the Plastic Industry Inc., and the Oregon Lands Coalition works out of the offices of the Association of Oregon Industries.

Corporate front groups have flourished in the United States, with several large companies donating money to more than one front group.

In 1991 Dow Chemical was contributing to ten front groups, including the Alliance to Keep Americans Working, the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, the American Council on Science and Health, Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Council for Solid Waste Solutions.

According to Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman in their report on corporate front groups in America, oil companies Chevron and Exxon were each contributing to nine such groups. Other companies which donate to multiple groups include Mobil, DuPont, Amoco, Ford, Philip Morris, Pfizer, Monsanto and Procter and Gamble.


These large corporations "stand to profit handsomely by linking their goals with what they hope to define as a grassroots populist movement."


The use of front groups to represent industry interests in the name of concerned citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, businesses lobbied governments directly and put out press releases in their own names or those of their trade associations.

The rise of citizen and public interest groups, including environmental groups, has reflected a growing scepticism among the public about statements made by businesses:

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief.... And if the Nutrasweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either.... But if the 'American Council on Science and Health' and its panel of 200 'expert' scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen.... And if the 'Calorie Control Council' reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concerns.


The American Council on Science and Health has received funds from food processing and beverage corporations including Burger King, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, NutraSweet and Nestlé USA, as well as chemical, oil and pharmaceutical companies such as Monsanto, Dow USA, Exxon, Union Carbide and others.

Its executive director, portrayed in the mass media as an independent scientist, defends petrochemical companies, the nutritional values of fast foods, and the safety of saccharin, pesticides and growth hormones for dairy cows. She claims that the U.S. government spends far too much on investigating unproven health risks such as dioxin and pesticides because of the public's "unfounded fears of man-made chemicals and their perception of these chemicals as carcinogens."

The American Council on Science and Health is one of many corporate front groups which allow industry-funded experts to pose as independent scientists to promote corporate causes. Chemical and nuclear industry front groups with scientific sounding names publish pamphlets that are 'peer reviewed' by industry scientists rather than papers in established academic journals.

Megalli and Friedman point out: "Contrary to their names, these groups often disregard compelling scientific evidence to further their viewpoints, arguing that pesticides are not harmful, saccharin is not carcinogenic, or that global warming is a myth. By sounding scientific, they seek to manipulate the public's trust."





  1. Rose, Merrill. 1991. 'Activism in the 90s: Changing Roles for Public Relations', Public Relations Quarterly 36 (3):28-32.
  2. Megalli, Mark, and Andy Friedman. 1991. Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Groups in America, Essential Information, p. 4, Stapleton, Richard. 1992. 'Green vs. Green', National Parks, Nov/Dec. 32-37, p. 35.
  3. Megilli and Friedman, pp. 184-5.
  4. Poole, William. 1992. 'Neither Wise nor Well', Sierra, Nov/Dec. 59-61, 88-93.
  5. Megilli and Friedman, p. 3.
  6. Bleifuss, Joel. 1995c. 'Science in the Private Interest: Hiring Flacks to Attack the Facts, PR Watch 2 (1):11-12. Anon. 1994. 'Public Interest Pretenders', Consumer Reports 59(5), p. 319. Anon. 1987a. 'Misguided Health Priorities Could Affect Economy', International Insurance Monitor 41 (6):16-17. Anon. 1987b. 'Dr. Blasts US Health Care Priorities', Cash Flow 91 (47):28-29.
  7. Bleifuss, 1995c, p. 11.
  8. Megalli and Friedman, p. 3.
  9. Faucheux, Ron. 1995. 'The Grassroots Explosion', Campaigns & Elections 16 (1), pp. 20-1, 26-30.
  10. Carney, Eliza Newlin. 1992. 'Industry Plays the Grassroots Card', National Journal 24 (5), p. 281.
  11. Stauber, John, and Sheldon Rampton. 1995/96. 'Deforming Consent: The Public Relations Industry's Secret War on activists', CoverAction Quarterly 55, p. 23.
  12. Anon. 1994i, p. 318.
  13. Cooper, Mario H. 1993-4. 'Winning in Washington: From Grasstops to Grassroots', Public Relations Quarterly 38 (4):13-15.
  14. Anon. 1994i, p. 317.
  15. Stauber, John, and Sheldon Rampton. 1995c. Toxic Sludge is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, p. 84.
  16. Greider, William. 1993. 'Grassroots Organizing, PR-style: Democracy for Hire', PR Watch 1 (1), p. 8. Faucheux, p. 24.
  17. Greider, William. 1992. Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 37.
  18. Grefe, Edward A., and Marty Linsky. 1995. The New Corporate Activism: Harnessing the Power of Grassroots Tactics for Your Organization, McGraw-Hill, New York, p. 214-5.
  19. Greider, 1992, p. 39.
  20. Quoted in Stauber and Rampton 1995/96, p. 18.
  21. Stauber and Rampton 1995/96, pp. 23-24.
  22. Sherrill, Robert. 1990. Why They Call it Politics: A Guide to America's Government, 5th ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, p. 376.
  23. Auerbach, Stuart. 1995. 'PR Gets Entrenched as a Washington Business', The Washington Post, 18 February 1, p. 19 Bleifuss, 1995a, pp. 2, 6. Nelson, Joyce. 1993b. 'Burson-Marsteller, Pax Trilateral, and the Brundtland Gang vs. the Environment', The New Catalyst (26):1-3, p. 9.
  24. Stauber and Rampton 1995b.
  25. Dillon, John. 1993. 'PR Giant Burson-Marsteller Thinks Global, Acts Local: Poisoning the Grassroots', CovertAction (44), 30-38.



Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.

Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/#politics

Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Public Relations' Role in Manufacturing Artificial Grass Roots Coalitions', Public Relations Quarterly 43(2), Summer 98, pp. 21-3


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