Coal, Christians and climate change – PR effectiveness

The recent Minerals Council of Australia coal campaign – ‘the amazing little black rock’ effort – is probably an odds on favourite to be judged the worst PR campaign of 2015.

The reason was summed up in Dr Tony Jaques most recent Managing Outcomes newsletter when he pointed out that “what coal really needs is an effectively targeted issue management strategy, not a ‘PR battle’ they are almost certain to lose.” See

The comment about the ‘PR battle’ stems from the description of the campaign offered by BHP Billiton’s coal President Mike Henry when he said the resources sector needed to do a better job to counter misinformation.  As Tony said: “An information battle maybe. A credibility battle perhaps. Possibly a battle for public trust. But when you concede you are in a PR battle it suggests the false idea that simply applying more PR will be the answer. To argue – as one coal CEO did – that the industry is trying to ‘limit the spread of misinformation, scare tactics and uninformed vitriol’ is tantamount to reducing a major industry challenge to ‘our spin is better than their spin.’”.

“There are two underlying problems with this coal campaign. The first is that it’s a serious mistake to over-rely on facts and data to persuade. It’s a seductive idea that a fact is a fact is a fact. But it just ain’t so. In the same way that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, so too one person’s fact is another person’s propaganda, and yet another person’s matter of opinion,” he said.

“The other problem is that in any information campaign, first you need to have your stakeholders listening. Only then can you start to communicate data and statistics. And even then you need to remember that data and statistics are information, they aren’t the solution and they’re not a campaign – especially when the issue is heavily driven by emotion and ideology.”

The Minerals Council’s coal director Greg Evans described the tumultuous adverse social media reception the campaign as “totally predictable and expected.” And as Tony said: “ No, Mr Evans. Social media engagement which is overwhelmingly negative is not ‘tremendous.’ And it doesn’t help get the facts on the table. Media ridicule simply distracts from any facts you are trying to present.”

The blog read Tony’s newsletter about the same time it came across a book called The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss, a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

The book’s subtitle is How early Christians invented a story of martyrdom. It doesn’t say there were no Christian martyrs (although estimates the authentic ones in single digit figures) and it does concede some Christians were executed along with lots of other people  by the Romans but it does address the historicity of much martyrdom and the Christian belief that the martyrdom they celebrate is unique.

What it also does is throw into doubt the massively successful PR campaign early – and later Christians – conducted around martyrdom. One of the most powerful and famous later bits of Christian propaganda was, of course, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs which did for the Protestants what early Christian chroniclers did for the history of the Church. Just as Foxe’s book obscured a paradox so early Christian mythologies did something similar. In the case of Foxe it was the reality that Elizabethan England executed as many Catholics as Mary did Protestants although in the Elizabethan case it was generally done in dungeon secrecy. In the early Christians’ case the paradox was that much of what they claimed about martyrs was simply rehashes of pagan and classical literature.

Moss’ book, relying heavily on modern scholarship and the church’s own analysis of martyr history, shows that many martyrdom stories were simply re-writes of classical tales and history from Iphigenia and Socrates to Lucretia and Anaxarchus as well as borrowings from Jewish and Pagan martyrdom traditions. Ultimately they were hagiography to “invent, supplement and expand martyrdom stories…to support…the cult of the saints.” Much of this was consolidated under Constantine, promoted by Eusebius, and continued as a form of propaganda into the modern world. How extraordinarily successful it was is highlighted by the fact that Moss’ students (she does teach at a Catholic university) confront her with total incomprehension when the topic comes up and a comment in the book’s acknowledgements thanks her boss for promising to ensure the book didn’t get her fired. Sadly the book seems to have sunk a bit under enormously hostile and vitriolic reviews on Fox News and a variety of Christian newsletters, magazines and blogs. But it is a great history of an extraordinarily effective centuries long PR campaign.

What it also highlights is that disinformation and myth have been with us for a long time and can be extraordinarily powerful  – when conducted by the powerful – as it has been in recent decades with climate denial. In May this year a Democratic Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, suggested in a Washington Post op ed that “fossil fuel companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution”; compared their campaign to Big Tobacco’s denial of the health dangers of smoking; and pointed out that the tobacco campaign was found by “a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.” While Whitehouse conceded there was not yet enough evidence to justify his conclusion about racketeering “there’s an awful lot of smoke”. The details are in an article by Steven T. Corneliussen in physicstoday (23 September 2015).

The Whitehouse article prompted 20 climate scientists from a variety of universities and other institutions to endorse the suggestion that there ought to be a RICO investigation (The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act originally once directed at the Mob but now often directed to bigger and more powerful groups) of “corporations and other organisations that have knowingly deceived the American public about the risks of climate change”. Given the lobbying power of the corporations it might be unlikely. However, it is instructive that the usual suspects jumping up and down about Obamacare supposedly introducing death panels and objecting to Professor Moss’ book were also the mob who shrieked about the climate scientists’ call. One wonders if the Australian coal industry campaign might have been a bit more successful if it was operating in the fertile US environment.