Would you be more inclined to believe something crazy if Stephen Fry told you? How about Michael Buerk? Tony Robinson?
These three are among a list of friendly celebrities that PR firm Munro & Forster believes could help the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) convince the public that building more incinerators is a really good idea.
A leaked PowerPoint presentation obtained by Friends of the Earth shows how the Government has sought pitches from branding agencies in order to deal with what it describes as ‘residual waste’, rubbish left over after recycling and composting. Under this scheme, incinerators – which routinely emit cancer-causing dioxins, heavy metals, PCBs and particulates – become just another brand, like the latest heart drug or anti-wrinkle cream.
Defra has pledged to reduce household residual waste by 45 per cent by 2020, but by the same token has also promised to increase incineration of residual waste to 20 per cent by the same date. Knowing each new proposal for an incinerator would meet with a storm of public protest, Defra seems to have planned a PR onslaught with just one goal: to make us learn to love incinerators.
The Munro & Forster document, which is available online – visit www.theecologist.org/incineratorplans – begins by baiting its hook for a specific catch. She will be at least 35 years old, ‘well educated’, with a successful career, children and a ‘strong sense of ethical and social responsibility’. She will also be an ‘affluent and consumptive’ broadsheet reader who is interested in news and current affairs.
Because such a target would already be familiar with environmental principles and beliefs, the pitch suggests altering the renowned slogan ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ to ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover [incinerate], Dispose [landfill]’. Being an educated 21st century consumer, the branding guidance suggests she will be persuaded technological fixes to environmental problems are just waiting in the wings. Cue the incinerator.
Except it won’t be called an incinerator; it will be an Energy From Waste facility or Energy Recovery plant. The message that incinerators are good will be reinforced throughout the media by placing ‘advertorials’ – adverts designed to look like editorial content. Oh, and don’t talk about ‘burning’ or ‘incinerating’ – talk about ‘breaking down’ waste. Sounds more like composting.
Such tactics are the ABCs of public relations – but the document goes further, repeatedly suggesting the Government ‘use’ Defra’s chief scientific advisor, Dr Robert Watson, and his Cabinet counterpart, Professor John Beddington, as central PR contacts. At one point, it is even suggested the scientists act as ‘tour guides’ for journalists on an incinerator site visit. The days when a scientific advisor was an independent expert consulted by the Government on controversial issues seem to have passed; now he or she is just another pawn in the Westminster armoury.
The document goes to similar lengths with the principles of social science. Concerned that public opinion polls on whether people believe technofixes can save the day may not produce the desired results, Munro & Forster also suggests ‘careful crafting of questions’ and a ‘careful construction of the survey’ in order to achieve the desired answers.
For the Government to embark upon a programme that deliberately sets out to defuse very real public health concerns over incinerator emissions seems to go beyond the usual betrayal of trust into deliberate – and dangerous – obfuscation.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008