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West Coasters Manipulated By PR Campaign

The anatomy of an anti-environmental PR campaign

News release 17 August 1999


Leaked public relations documents show Timberlands West Coast manipulated West Coast people to drum up local support for its native forest logging plans. Through creating a front-group and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on local sponsorship Timberlands created the impression of independent local support for its logging.

The secret PR documents, quoted in the book Secrets and Lies, reveal that Timberlands PR staff dreamed up and arranged the formation of a purportedly independent local pro-logging group and then used the group to implement its PR strategies as required. (See chapters 9 and 10, pages 158-200.)

The book reveals that the plan to form a pro-Timberlands group came out of a PR strategy meeting between Timberlands and its PR companies held on 1 July 1997 and that the group has been under the company’s control ever since.

The group, Coast Action Network (CAN), has appeared regularly in the news media. It was the subject of a Holmes feature recently where the group hotly denied any links with Timberlands. CAN dominates West Coast news coverage of local community perspectives on logging issues. But the leaked papers quoted in the book prove that CAN is a front group for the state company which, the authors argue, has no mandate to play politics in this way.

The authors note that some West Coast people who participated in the group were undoubtedly unaware that they were part of the company PR campaign. But the leading CAN members are revealed as working closely with the company, working according to priorities and plans originating from Timberlands and its PR advisers.

This example from the leaked papers shows how the group was used to create the impression of third-party support for Timberlands:

At a 31 October 1997 PR telephone conference, staff from the PR firm Shandwick were given the job of dealing with a proposal, that some Timberlands forests should be conserved and dedicated to Princess Diana, that had appeared in the newspapers. On 4 November, Shandwick consultant Rob McGregor drafted letters to the West Coast papers and the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, (in the voice of West Coasters) opposing the proposal and faxed them to Timberlands. In his cover note he wrote:

“Thank you for your help with this and for arranging for the Action Group to dispatch the letters on their letterhead and in the name of their organisation. Better this salvo comes from them than Timberlands.” (page 163).

There are other, similar examples in the leaked Timberlands papers.

“The use of front groups as a counter to genuine community campaigns is a well-known PR tactic employed in other countries,” says co-author, Bob Burton. “It is an unethical public relations practice that subverts democratic processes.”

In early 1999 the leader of CAN was a Timberlands contractor, Barry Nicolle, who met with senior Timberlands staff at the Timberlands headquarters to plan all major CAN activities meetings. Nicolle made the standard denial that CAN was linked to Timberlands to a large public meeting called by CAN in Greymouth in April 1999, even though he himself had spent the afternoon before the forum in a meeting with senior Timberlands staff. The meeting was advertised as being about “the future of the West Coast”, but the West Coasters who turned up found that the meeting was focussed entirely on Timberlands.

Timberlands’ sponsorship of West Coast groups was also a cynical attempt by the state-owned company to ‘buy’ local support for its logging activities.

Timberlands’ local sponsorship spending almost doubled, to $150,000 in 1998 after protests began against its native forest logging. The PR strategy papers explain bluntly that a purpose of the sponsorship was to make local groups feel indebted to the company “as a way of assisting local support for the Beech Scheme”.

The West Coast Principals Association, for instance, was identified in the PR plans as a target. Timberlands internal documents crudely explained the strategy as:

“Concept: To provide practical assistance to the West Coast Principals Association in return for gaining the opportunity to get the support of local schools for Timberlands and its operations.”

Timberlands donated $2,500 for the association's annual conference in 1996, 1997 and 1998. In 1998, when Timberlands was secretly trying to orchestrate submissions in favour of its beech logging plans, the Principals Association president duly circulated a letter with a pro-logging submission form to all West Coast schools saying:

“Timberlands have been generous supporters of our Principal's Conference and schools on the Coast and I invite you and staff to consider this submission.”

An August 1998 meeting between Timberlands and Shandwick PR staff identified the following “opportunities where public relations can be applied to further the interest of Timberlands”:

“Community Front: *Thank you TWC letters - from allies who have received TWC sponsorship; Environmental Front: *Anti-NFA letter writing campaign (stock letters); *Thank you TWC for supplying my son's football team, etc.”

Soon after, anti-Native Forest Action (NFA) letters to the editor began to appear in newspapers, many of them written by Timberlands staff and contractors.

“The cynical use of West Coasters deserves to be exposed. It is an insult to local people and an abuse of political processes for a company – and especially a state company – to be manipulating a political debate in this way,” Bob Burton said.

For more information, contact Nicky Hager and Bob Burton at 04 384 5074.


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