Science  /  Argument

Spin Doctors Have Shaped the Environmentalism Debate for Decades

“Green” public relations work has flown below the radar but made a huge impact.

Americans have long known about environmental damage caused by industrial pollution. The 1961 publication of “Silent Spring,” science writer Rachel Carson’s exposé of the toxic hazards of pesticides, galvanized a shocked public to call for immediate action. “Silent Spring” fomented a groundswell of public reform aimed at reclaiming the rights of citizens to a safe, clean and healthy environment.

“Silent Spring” drove industries to react as well. For Harrison, who was head of PR at the chemical trade association put it at the time, this was Pearl Harbor for his people. The scale and scope of the PR response was unprecedented. The chemical and agribusiness industries threw themselves into the attack, preparing fiery negative book reviews, newsletter mailings, TV appearances by “expert” scientists and letters to news editors questioning the legitimacy of the book and its author.

The countercampaign backfired. The intensive media attention to the book brought its concerns into the White House and a deeply sympathetic Kennedy administration. Concern over environmental hazards only accelerated throughout the decade, colored by the thalidomide tragedy in Europe and punctuated by a massive oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Under President Richard Nixon, a flurry of environmental laws passed: the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969; the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970; and key amendments to strengthen the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in 1972. Together, these laws underscored the waning power of corporate interests to dominate the environmental conversation.

This was where Harrison stepped in. The industry’s failure to avoid reform through antagonism taught Harrison an important lesson, one that guided his political strategies for the rest of his career. In the clamor for change, chief executives’ hand-wringing over the “burden” of government regulation on business seemed increasingly tone deaf. It was not opposition but compromise that would win the day for his clients’ brand of American environmentalism.

Intensely charming, soft-spoken and a quiet wit in person and by pen, Harrison set out to restore legitimacy to industrial expertise amid the growing power and visibility of the environmental movement.

In 1973, when Harrison founded his PR firm in Washington, it was the first public relations agency to focus entirely on corporate environmental issues. The E. Bruce Harrison Company’s first client was a coalition Harrison created himself, the National Environmental Development Association. The ambiguously named coalition monitored pending environmental legislation, created fact sheets and newsletters and held conferences for its members — drawn from the chemical, mining and petroleum industries as well as labor groups, market-minded members of Congress and agricultural interests — all with a bone to pick over the restrictions of emerging environmental standards.