Bad PR

December 5, 1995

By Baz Patton MELBOURNE — About 20 activists occupied the office of the multinational public relations company Burson-Marsteller (B-M) for five hours on November 29. The demonstrators, activists with the Native Forest Network (NFN), Coalition Against Freeway Extensions (CAFE), Save Albert Park, Friends of the Earth, the Koonung Mullum Forestway Association and the Richmond Action Coalition on Freeways, were protesting the company's dealings with woodchipping and freeway-building clients in Australia and overseas. B-M is the world's largest PR company with more than 70 offices in 30 countries. In Australia it has been working for the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) to make dishonest national television commercials promoting export woodchipping. It has also worked with Transurban on the City Link tollway project in Melbourne. B-M has an appalling record overseas on environmental and social issues including working for: Union Carbide, after the Bhopal gas leak that killed up to 10,000 people in India in 1984; Exxon, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill that wreaked environmental havoc along the Alaskan coast in 1989; the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, to promote business opportunities in that country; and the Argentinian junta during the "dirty war" of the late 1970s when 35,000 people were disappeared, to improve Argentina's international image. B-M has also worked for Babcock and Wilcox, builder of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant that leaked radioactive gas in the US in 1979; A.H. Robins, makers of the Dalkon shield intra-uterine device that caused toxic shock in scores of women worldwide in the 1980s; and Hydro Québec on its environmentally devastating James Bay project that will flood indigenous people's lands and divert the flow of Canadian rivers. During the occupation, ever conscious of the importance of PR and image, B-M's managing director, Cheryl Sing offered to hear the activists' grievances over coffee and biscuits; no police or security were called. Sing undertook to take up the activists' concerns, if supplied in writing, with the clients involved and B-M offices overseas. A spokesperson for NFN, Anthony Amis, said NAFI spent $2 million on propaganda last financial year, a large proportion of which goes to B-M. "It's outrageous that NAFI is using a company with such a dubious history to promote the virtues of export woodchipping", he said. CAFE spokesperson Karl Charikar said City Link would be a transport and environmental disaster, increasing congestion and air pollution. "Burson-Marsteller are the people you call when you want to sell an environmental disaster to the public", he said.

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