Leave it to Washington's top attack-dog lobbyist Richard Berman to verify what many always suspected: that the oil and gas industry uses dirty tricks to undermine science, vilify its critics and discredit journalists who cast doubt on the prudence of fossil fuels.
In a speech at an industry conference in June, surreptitiously recorded by an energy executive, Rick Berman, the foremost go-to guy for Republican smear campaigns, gave unusually candid advice to a meeting of drilling companies.
“Think of this as an endless war,” he told executives in a speech, which was leaked to The New York Times by an attendee at the conferenece who was offended by Berman's remarks.
“And you have to budget for it.” He said the industry needs to dig up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities, exploit the public’s short attention span for scientific debate, and play on people’s emotions.
“Fear and anger have to be a part of this campaign,” Berman said. “We’re not going to get people to like the oil and gas industry over the next few months.”
Berman also advised that executives continue to spend big. “I think $2 to $3 million would be a game changer,” he said. “We’ve had six-figure contributions to date from a few companies in this room to help us get to where we are.”
But always cover your tracks, he suggested, adding that no is better equipped at doing so than his firm. “We run all this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity,” he said. “People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for 20-something years in this regard.”
Berman, whose tobacco ties were profiled yesterday by DeSmog contributor John Mashey, is the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company consulting firm. He attended the conference in Colorado, hat in hand, looking to raise money from energy companies for an advertising and public relations campaign he started called Big Green Radicals.
The campaign has already placed a series of intentionally controversial advertisements in Pennsylvania and Colorado, heavy drilling states. The firm has also paid to place its media campaign on websites aimed at national and Washington D.C. audiences.
The event where Berman spoke was held in Colorado Springs, and was sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance.
“[W]herever possible, I like to use humor to minimize or marginalize the other side,” he told the crowd, which included executives from drilling firms like Chesapeake Energy and EnCana Oil and Gas along with energy services companies like Halliburton, industry trade associations, law firms and banks, according to a scheduled attendee list also provided to The Times.
Mr. Berman was joined at the conference by Jack Hubbard, a vice president at Berman & Company, who described the P.R. firm's approach for targetting what they labeled “radical” groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Food and Water Watch. A full transcript of their speech was published by The Times.
“So we thought, how are we going to kick off this campaign? Take the typical Berman and Company model, in terms of undermining these folks’ credibility and diminish their moral authority,” Hubbard explained, adding that they had done “a whole bunch of intense opposition research into their board of directors” – and wound up with nothing more than a campaign based on the gas mileage of the directors’ personal vehicles.
“But one of the things we are really focused on is how do we take the message, put it on a bumper sticker, and get it out to the public so it gets coverage and you break through the 24/7 news cycle,” he said, citing the campaign as an example of their effectiveness at changing the public's perception of an issue through personal attacks on advocates.
The team’s tactics include taking advantage of people’s short attention spans, especially where ballot initiatives and issues of local control are concerned.
“The next thing you know, you’re trying to play defense against multiple public initiatives that are very different and very complex. And the public, frankly, doesn’t have the time or the brain to understand them all,” Hubbard told the oil industry representatives. “So what we wanted to do is that we wanted to brand the entire movement behind this as not being credible and anti-science.”
Berman described the job of convincing people as he sees it — introducing just enough doubt that even if people don’t support an issue, they’re confused enough to write it off.
“Instead of getting the ‘he said she said’ debate, what you will get with the factual debate, often times, you’re going to get into people get overwhelmed by the science and ‘I don’t know who to believe,” Berman told the attendees at the conference. “But if you got enough on your side you get people into a position of paralysis on the issue.”
“You get into people’s minds a tie. They don’t know who is right,” he said. “And you get all ties because a tie basically ensures the status quo.”
It is unclear whether people have the stomach for more of this type of behavior. Even the pro-drilling Denver Post Editorial Board has criticized the tactics that Berman suggested and which industry public relations outlets like Energy In Depth have been using for years, calling one ad “a cheap shot at fracking foes.”
But the industry itself is desperate as public concerns about climate change increase and popular sentiment turns against more drilling. And desperate times mean desperate measures.
The recording is by no means the first evidence of these aggressive and ad hominum tactics. Last month, DeSmog described how the industry’s attack machine has gone after major foundations and endowments, attempting to frame their donations to environmental groups as an insideous conspiracy to undermine American energy production instead of a response to the growing number of problems related to fracking.
Back in 2011, CNBC revealed that Range Resources was taking military psy-ops skills and applying them to political battles in Pennsyvlania and across the U.S., with an official from another shale gas company, Anandarko, telling attendees at a Houston shale conference that “we are dealing with an insurgency.”
They’ve also claimed that the media is waging a “war on shale gas” at times when reporters started asking tough but vital questions, surrounding dubious financial practices and how toxic waste from fracking is handled, for example. The industry famously targeted the New York Times itself back in 2011 when that paper ran Drilling Down, an award-winning investigative series about fracking.
In the recorded speech, Berman and Hubbard provided detailed public relations advice to those gathered. “If you want a video to go viral, have kids or animals,” Berman said.
“There is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle,” Mr. Hubbard added, describing a series of billboards deploying personal attacks on Yoko Ono and Robert Redford, both of whom have spoken out against fracking.
Berman is also known for having created the American Beverage Institute in 1991, which lobbied against tougher restrictions on drunk driving, while protecting its donors. But Mr. Berman is especially notorious among labor unions, another of his favorite adversaries.
“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions — that’s my offense,” said Berman who created the so-called Center for Union Facts, which led a $10 million anti-union campaign without disclosing donors. “I am just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand.”
Listen to the audio recording of Berman spilling his secrets in full. H/T CREW.
Brad Johnson has also posted the audio along with related materials: