Ethics Fail: PR Firm Doubles as ‘Independent Research Institute’

The fast food industry suffered some terrible PR a few weeks ago when an infographic revealed that a majority of employees at big chains qualify for federal benefits; the headlines read that American taxpayers essentially subsidize these companies’ ability to pay their workers low wages. It’s not a new theme, but it bolstered arguments that Walmart greeters and McD’s managers alike should not be prohibited from unionizing and lobbying for higher pay.

As the story grew, one name popped up over and over again as a contrary source speaking out against any related minimum wage increases: the Employment Policies Institute.

The problem, as revealed by the Center for Media and Democracy‘s PRWatch: EPI is another name for Berman and Co., a PR/lobbying firm created by former restaurant industry executive and labor attorney Rick Berman. He’s also responsible for the American Beverage Institute, a “think tank” fighting smoking bans and efforts to lower blood-alcohol limits used in DUI charges, as well as, a site focused on countering the Humane Society of the United States‘ push for stricter regulations on animal testing.

There are more. Berman is essentially public enemy #1 to anyone who supports government-funded public health initiatives, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

This might be your usual red vs. blue political debate but for the fact that only 3% of the articles citing EPI (cleverly named to evoke the Economic Policy Institute) mention its parent organization. And what about the organization itself? There’s a home page that describes EPI as “a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth”, a separate website focusing on minimum wage issues, and a series of studies written by various economics professors. Michael Saltsman would appear to be the EPI’s sole full-time employee except that his LinkedIn profile lists him as “Research Director at Berman and Company”; he has a few Huffington Post bylines and his pet cause is opposing any federal or statewide minimum wage increases.

Occasionally the group will place industry-approved ads like this one, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal and strongly implied that fast food chains will hire robots to do the work if employees continue demanding higher salaries.

Liberal consumer advocacy groups have created entire sites dedicated to discrediting Berman, and longtime readers may have seen his name on our blog before. In a 2007 60 Minutes profile, Berman appears to relish his status as “Dr. Evil”, a man opposed to all forms of business regulation enacted by the American government.

Jason Chupick‘s 2009 post concerned SweetScam, Berman’s attempt to protect the reputation of high fructose corn syrup against a “smear campaign” by what he called “Big Sugar”. Berman’s strategy is to put out short, snappy commercials and then offer “experts” to give reporters quotes backing up their conclusions—and his ideology goes beyond the classic libertarian “I can eat/smoke/do whatever I want” to affect the dissemination of information to the public.

The food business obviously deserves representation, and in a perfect world the legitimate work of each industry’s supporters and detractors would have equal time in the court of public opinion. But the fact that so few people connect EPI to Berman plays into one of the worst stereotypes about the PR industry: that we’re all shills paid to downplay the health risks of products produced by our faceless corporate clients (whose names we won’t reveal unless required by law).

That’s no more accurate than the EPI’s claims to be an independent research institute.

In the 60 Minutes clip, Berman openly describes his strategy as “getting people to understand that this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest”, yet stories like this repeatedly damage the credibility of the public relations industry.

However you may feel about Berman’s politics, this is not the best way to improve the public’s perceptions of the work we do.