Probe

Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Public relations and technology', Engineers Australia, May 2000, p. 44.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Public relations and marketing have long played a role in the development of technology but never more so than today. Many large corporations use public relations techniques to oppose environmental regulations which would otherwise force them to develop and use more environmentally friendly technologies.

An example is General Electric, GE. It started as the Edison Electric Light company and was one of the first companies to utilise public relations techniques. In the 1880s Edison Electric Light tried to portray alternating current, AC, as dangerous so as to advantage its preferred direct current, DC.

Edison, with the help of publicist Harold Brown, demonstrated the deadly effect of AC on various animals and successfully campaigned for electrocution with AC to be used by New York State as a means of execution. They then ran a publicity campaign asking "Do you want the executioner's current in your home and running through your streets?"

In the 1930s General Electric joined with other electrical companies, to promote the electric refrigerator with the heavy use of advertising and public relations including huge neon signs, street parades and a one hour colour film.

In contrast the manufacturers of gas refrigerators lacked the money and personnel and aggressive marketing techniques to promote their alternative and soon went out of business even though many engineers felt the gas fridge was superior because it was quiet, easy to maintain and cheaper to run.

GE continued to realize the importance of public relations during the following decades. It employed actor Ronald Reagan in 1954, giving him a TV career and sending him on a lecture circuit around the country pushing GE causes such as deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and attacking labour unions and social welfare.

In the 1980s GE took part in the corporate fight against US Superfund legislation which sought to pay for the clean up of toxic sites through charging the companies that created them. GE, together with Dow, Du Pont, Union Carbide, and Monsanto, formed a coalition to work towards the overturn of the legislation when it came up for renewal.

Today General Electric is a huge multinational company. With an annual revenue of over $100 billion and $10 billion in profit in 1999, GE was the most profitable corporation in the USA. It is also one of the world's most diverse corporations covering aircraft engines, appliances, lighting, plastics, power systems, transportation systems, medical systems, industrial systems, financial services and the NBC global media company. GE operates in over 100 countries with over half of its 300,000 employees working outside the US.

GE applies its economic strength to influencing public opinion, both directly through its media interests and indirectly through funding other organizations. It owns NBC, a television network which broadcasts to over 200 affiliated stations in the US, several US television stations and cable stations, as well as media outlets in Europe and a Spanish language news service reaching 21 countries in Latin America and an Asian Service.

Despite its direct media ownership and its interlocking board of directors with other media outlets, GE spends millions on commercials and sponsorship of television programs on other networks to improve its image and be in a position to influence content of media companies it doesn't own.

And GE needs to improve its image. Four of its factories are on a US EPA list of the most dangerous industrial sources of air pollution. In 1998, when the EPA was trying to get GE to clean up the Hudson River, which GE had contaminated with PCBs, GE's public relations efforts to portray the river as safe were so successful that the EPA was concerned that it was undermining official efforts to stop people eating fish from the river.

GE is a member of various business coalitions such as the European Business Roundtable of Industrialists, ERT, and funds a number of corporate front groups and conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, all of which oppose environmental regulation. The conservative think tanks funded by GE provide 'independent' experts to give comment on media outlets owned or funded by GE.

These PR activities are now fairly typical amongst transnational corporations.