Recently, an articulate and highly informative article by Ann Landman appeared on pr watch. Although quite critical and explicitly biased, it details Philip Morris’s current public relations activities to modify existing regulation of the tobacco industry in the United States, and (I believe) provides a most interesting backstage analysis of our profession—very stimulating food for thought for all of us.
For example, rather than simply complaining about social and media criticism of our profession, we should instead direct our activities towards demonstrating (maybe even exposing) the effectiveness and positive complexities of various activities. Here on PR Conversations, we’ve already provided some case studies of this nature. For example, the effectiveness of the Government of Tanzania, not to mention the Italian ngo Cesvi in Cape Town, or the industrial coalition against wildfires in Portugal.
So, what I’m pointing you to here is the case of a huge, (many would say) nasty and much-criticised tobacco multinational “doing its thing,” in what, even according to its fiercest critics, appears to be highly effective public relations practice.
First I feel the need for some (boring but necessary) disclosure: from 1976 to 1996 I consulted with Philip Morris in Italy and, during the second decade, I’d extended my assignment to the whole of the international tobacco industry in my country.
For critics and the curious, one may read a (far-too-detailed) story of my activities in that period by visiting www.pmdocs.com. (If you “search,” there are 508 documents for my full name; 497 for Toni Falconi; 408 for Toni Muzi; and 424 for SCR, which was the name of my agency at that time. Plus another 334 under CDIT, the Center of Documentation and Information on Tobacco, which I founded in 1986 and headed until 1996). And that’s not all; there are many other websites that disclose the “secret” documents of the tobacco industry activities over the last 40 years.
As you can imagine, the publication of these documents was not voluntary.
Let me recall… I had voluntarily terminated my contract with that industry in 1996, following 20 years of intense professional activity. Four years later, on a Saturday morning of the summer of 2000 I was weekending in a lovely house overlooking the stark blue Mediterranean sea off the Amalfi coast, when I received a telephone call from London. It was a British reporter of the very authoritative and reputed New England Journal of Medicine.
The conversation went something like this:
Reporter: Mr. Muzi Falconi, on the 23 of March of 1981 you visited the Italian Minister of Health and suggested he support a bill that would have reinstated purely informative tobacco advertising, which had been forbidden in Italy since 1962. In exchange, you added, the tobacco industry would have discontinued its pervasive promotional and sponsoring activities. According to a report you filed to the client, the Minister had replied he would think about it if you succeeded in convincing a significant component of the Italian publishing industry to violate the law, openly and defiantly advertise tobacco products and therefore create a case which would raise a public debate and oblige him to take a position. Do you confirm this?
TMF: I am afraid I cannot remember the exact date but this sounds familiar. How do you know?
Reporter: on the website www.pmdocs.com are hundreds of documents related to your correspondence with Philip Morris over the 20 years you worked for them, and the one I just cited is one of them. I want your confirmation, because I wish to trace the Minister of the time to make sure you were not overstating his willingness to consider that option.
TMF: But you surely are aware that following that encounter, Italy’s then-largest-publisher, Rizzoli, did in fact violate the law and published tobacco advertisements. Afterwards the public debate exploded, with a majority of comments from many sides, including anti tobacco and health activists, backing the change of regulation favouring a voluntary decision by the tobacco industry to refrain from below-the-line promotional and sponsorship activities.
Reporter: Sure, but this never happened. Why didn’t the plan succeed?
TMF: Please let me visit the website you mentioned; I will get back to you before Sunday evening.
When I called the reporter back, I indicated that the reason why the plan never succeeded was the result of my visit to the Minister, which had highly surprised my client, Philip Morris. Following top-level meetings with corporate headquarters in Bruxelles and New York and the Washington-based Tobacco Institute, the client advised me to drop this option (which had probably been inadvertently approved; I’m sure PM thought this wild idea would never see the light of day…) and think again….
As you may imagine, I spent that whole Saturday afternoon and night under great stress, speed reading (amazing experience!) all those documents on the website. Think of it like reliving in fast motion (as if in a dream), 20 years of your life.
Of course, I did find various compromising and somewhat embarrassing documents (mostly related to my contacts with public officials), but in my view almost nothing was so serious that I would not stand up for those same documents today; which left me quite relieved…mainly because only one month earlier, I had been elected president of the Italian Public Relations Federation (Ferpi).
In holding this position I wished to avoid a potential ongoing shooting or blackmailing exercise by those (inside and outside the association) who had opposed my candidacy or who for some reason would be inclined to make a public issue of this. What I decided to do was immediately and publicly disclose the website’s URL by an open letter to the three most-read daily newspapers (Corriere della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore and La Repubblica) , which was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. (Disclosure: to a certain extent this is what I am doing with you readers as well…)
Of course I also contacted PM’s headquarters in Rome, Lausanne, Bruxelles and New York and told them I was absolutely furious at not having had been informed of the public release of those documents. The reply I received was they had been forced to do this in the context of a trade-off agreement with, if I remember correctly, the US Congress. Which was legitimate, but still did not answer my question of why wasn’t I informed of the public disclosure of the documents?
I called a legal friend and, once I confirmed to him that I still possessed in my archives 20 years of reciprocally signed (by my company as well as by Philip Morris), non-disclosure and confidential agreements, I could sue Philip Morris and be rich the rest of my life….
And this explained to me why they never told me about what had happened. It is clear they had underestimated the explosive growth of the Internet and did not want to be so sued.
Of course, I never did sue PM… also because (and now we arrive at the core of my confession), in my 45 years of experience, I believe I have learned more from my colleagues at Philip Morris than any other company or PR professionals.
There is nothing like external pressure to stimulate innovation and creativity; there is nothing like a crisis to induce effective crisis management.
Finally, not having done anything in my professional capacity that I believed to be either criminal or totally unacceptable, I asked myself if, apart from their stupidity in not having warned me, it was really so important for me to become rich at the expense of a simple breach of contract by a client who had served me well (and vice versa) for a 20-year stretch?
So, as you might gather, I am myself quite biased just like the author of that pr watch article. Only on the other side when I say that PM’s program (so clearly and convincingly detailed by Anne Landman) to modify the regulation of the industry seems to me to be very well thought out and enacted.
And, in this context, may I also add that I very much believe that the recent film Thank You for Smoking is another (clearly indirect) by-product of PM’s public relations skill, just like their well-publicized communication activities to reduce teenage smoking, which recently raised the eyebrows of the New York Times editorial page and led me a few months ago to a post on this blog, in which I advanced the consideration that Philip Morris knows very well that those activities are unsuccessful in deterring youngsters from smoking, but very effective in convincing specifically relevant stakeholder groups of the seriousness of their intentions…only to confirm the correct interpretation given by the prwatch article referenced in this post.
The core of this post is to invite you to read Ann Landman’s article with attention. In particular, try to rid yourself of any strong or weak anti-tobacco bias. Having done that, consider if the program (clearly described in a biased fashion) does not amount to an excellent description of a highly professional approach to our profession.
Naturally my preference would be for comments that address the specific policy issue (i.e., “what other ways do we have to remain a legitimate business?”), rather than a moralistic/ideological issue (i.e., “the tobacco industry is not legitimate and therefore it does not have a license to operate in the arena of public relations/affairs”). But I will be happy to accept both. Thank you for your input.