In “Law and Ethics for Public Relations,” a course I developed for Mid-America Christian University, we will study front groups, “an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned.” This definition comes from Sourcewatch.org, one of many organizations dedicated to communications transparency that reveal front group backgrounds. Critics of the public relations industry have denounced front groups as communications professionals using their skills to deceive the public, disseminating information from seemingly authoritative and neutral bodies that is an actual effort to sway opinion in favor of the obscured–and often mistrusted–backers of these groups.
Coca-Cola is the latest among a long list of industries and companies sponsoring front groups. The New York Times and the Associated Press reported that Coke gave $1.5 million to the Global Energy Balance Group, a scientific body that claimed physical activity has a significant effect on weight and can offset the consumption of high-calorie foods and beverages. A damning string of emails showed the depth of Coke’s involvement with the group, down to guidance on logo design. Principals of the group, Professors James Hill and Steven Blair had provided numerous quotes to media and received millions in funding from Coke in prior years.
The history of front groups spans decades. Author and professor Patricia J. Parsons cites PR pioneer Carl Byoir as a pioneer as well of front groups. In the 1930s, he launched groups such as the National Consumers Tax Commission to argue against taxation. Such groups’ names and aims sounded noble enough. Less noble was the fact that Byoir did this work for his client, the A&P grocery chain, to stop higher taxes on chain stores.
In the study of front groups, the tobacco industry is frequently used as an example. In the 1950s, new scientific reports presented cigarettes’ health risks. In response, the tobacco industry formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee under the counsel of leading PR firm Hill and Knowlton. The committee released regular communications to doctors and media disputing the link between lung cancer and smoking, citing other possible causes including air pollution. The tobacco industry kept broadcasting messages to defend its position even after the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking’s dangers, including the claim that nicotine increased mental acuity and the demand to “Get Government Off Our Backs.”
RECOMMENDED BEST PRACTICE: PRSA members should recognize that assisting front groups and individuals that represent undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, cause, tactics, sponsors or participants, even if such activities are lawful such as 527 organizations, constitutes improper conduct and malpractice under the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and should be avoided.
Professor Parsons offers more in the way of best practice:
The bottom line is that there is considerable opportunity for public relations professionals to be more innovative in their approaches to solving PR problems or capitalizing on PR opportunities. But in the heat of the creative process, we cannot afford to lose sight of the potential ethical quagmires into which we may be falling.