Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton and Big Tobacco

Mark Penn, CEO of the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller (B-M) and president of the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates (PSB), feels misunderstood.

Penn was recently in the news when several union officials expressed concern that Democratic Presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton had hired him as a "key strategic adviser," even though B-M has a specialist unit that advises clients on defeating union campaigns. Not surprisingly, Clinton's campaign shrugged off the criticism, insisting that he is a "vital member of our team." In an email to Atlantic Online, Penn wrote that that he had "never personally done such [anti-labor] work" and insisted that he has "strong personal sympathies with the labor movement." (Why someone who proclaims their pro-labor sympathies would even head up a PR firm that runs an anti-labor unit went unexplained.) Even if one accepts Penn's explanation at face value, it left me wondering who he had worked for.

A little digging reveals that, for well over two decades, both Penn and his opinion polling company have advised the tobacco industry on how to counter the campaigns of the tobacco control movement. Based on internal tobacco industry documents, it is clear that Penn and his colleagues have little personal sympathy for those promoting policies that put public health ahead of the interests of the tobacco industry.

Heading for Harlem

Penn's work as a strategist and pollster for the tobacco industry goes way back. In 1989 Gus Weill from Penn and Schoen Associates (PSA), as it was known at the time, dispatched a proposal to Elizabeth Veanus of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) outlining how PSA would go about researching the company's prospects of establishing a branch of a smoker's rights group in Harlem. Weill wrote that his colleagues were "extremely excited" about the project. The polling, he wrote, would be undertaken by Penn and his partner Douglas Schoen, who "have more than a decade of experience conducting groups around the country and performing research on smoking issues."

The goal of PSA's proposed research project, Weill emphasized, was "identical to your goal in entering Harlem: to get smokers' rights groups up and running with utmost speed and effectiveness." The proposal outlined some themes to explore as a way of identifying which Harlem residents could be receptive to a smokers' rights campaign. "Do they understand the ways in which smokers are penalized by society? Sure, they know about non-smoking areas but do they know that smoking is over-taxed and over-regulated?" he wrote.

To help sell the proposal, Weill included brief biographical sketches of himself, Penn and Schoen. Penn, the proposal stated, had "designed and managed all Latin American projects" for the firm, including political campaigns for Presidents Campin and Peres in Venezuela, President Barco in Colombia, President Blanco in the Dominican Republic, President Paz in Bolivia and Premier Swan in Bermuda. It is unclear from the tobacco industry records whether the "smokers' rights" project ever proceeded.

Another longstanding client of PSB, as PSA became known after Michael Berland joined the firm, is the world's largest private tobacco company, Philip Morris (PM). Like RJR, PM had tried to mobilize "grassroots" opposition to tobacco control measures. It was a strategy that relied on using a front group — in PM's case the National Smokers Alliance — to shore up political opposition to reforms while it attempted to rebuild its political defenses via traditional lobbying and PR campaigns. But as the court findings against tobacco became more frequent, PM and other tobacco companies' political standing evaporated. As the evidence of the dramatic health impacts of environmental tobacco smoke grew, support for bans on smoking in public spaces — such as bars and restaurants — grew. Once more, PSB volunteered to help defend the indefensible.

Hi-ho, Hi-ho, It's Off to Work We Go

On April 14, 1994, the seven CEO's of the major tobacco companies gave testimony before Congress, each swearing under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. This spectacle became so infamous that the CEO's were dubbed the "Seven Dwarfs" by the mass media.

Just one week before this public-relations fiasco, PSB sent PM a proposed research plan on the company's Accommodation Program, a PR campaign designed to help deflate controversy over secondhand smoke in the workplace and preempt local and state legislation to end smoking in public places. PM also hoped the program would provide the company with an entrée to hospitality business owners and associations who could be used as third party allies in fighting smoking restrictions.

The proposal made it quite clear that the research would dovetail with PM's defensive battle plan: "comprehensive, independent, and credible Penn + Schoen research can help promote accommodation as the reasonable alternative to bans and demonstrate that smoking bans are bad for business."

The proposal, which came with a $479,000 price tag, then sketched the three-stage research PSB would undertake to arrive at predetermined conclusions. To help demonstrate how "reasonable" PM's position was, PSB proposed:

  • undertaking an economic impact analysis of restaurant owners/bar managers in a city with a smoking ban to "demonstrate the cost of smoking bans in terms of lost jobs, lost taxes and lost profits … Demonstrating the economic power of smokers will be essential to reversing bans, and extremely valuable in stopping them in the first place";
  • undertaking a series of polls at both a state and national level to "tangibly demonstrate the opposition to bans and support for accommodation … we recommend a focus on privacy and lifestyle concerns including a light-hearted approach"; and
  • "a census of Accommodation program members to identify potential activists for grassroots mobilization … We can prove that a smoking ban is virtually the last reason people choose to frequent a particular restaurant and that bans may create rather than solve problems."

As part of its pitch, PSB stressed that it sympathized with PM's political plight: "We want to help re-frame the smoking debate in terms that will contrast with the extremist notions often portrayed in the media as the norm, and that are increasingly dominating public discourse."

The proposal identified Doug Schoen from the firm's New York office and Robert Green from its Washington DC office as the two staff who would work directly on the project. Once more, there are no records indicating whether the project proceeded or not.

In May 1995, PSB did a survey for the New York Tavern and Restaurant Association on what New York city residents thought about restrictions on smoking in restaurants. The following month they worked for the now defunct Tobacco Institute (TI), canvassing restaurant owners in New York City and New Jersey on what they thought might happen to their businesses if a smoking law was enacted.

For the tobacco industry, surveys based on subjective views about potential economic effects of clean indoor air standards are doubly useful. They can be waved under the noses of wavering politicians. More importantly, they can help create anxiety amongst bar owners fearful of the potential impacts of clean indoor air standards. Once fearful, bar owners are easier to mobilize to oppose smoking restrictions. However, reviews of hard data such as sales tax receipts tell another story. Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, which has reviewed the major studies on the topic, concludes that in nearly all cases the long term impact on business from smoking bans is either negligible or beneficial.

Regulatory "Compromise"

In 2001, PM hired Penn to help develop strategies to convince the Democrats in Congress "to support reasonable regulation" of the tobacco industry. PM's plan was to have surveys conducted by both Democratic and Republican pollsters; the results would support a "compromise" bipartisan position on tobacco regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For PM, the strategy was based on a shrewd assessment that short-term concessions would bolster its medium and longer term position in the market relative to its main competitors, such as British American Tobacco and Reynolds. It figured that PM-approved changes with bipartisan support would be more palatable than tougher standards that could emerge later.

In a summary memo of its 2001 poll, Penn and his colleague Josh King explained that they tested what they referred to as the two "extreme" positions: "do not regulate tobacco at all" and "regulate tobacco out of existence." The pollsters then presented PM's preferred elements of FDA regulation. This approach allowed them to conclude that "there are broadly appealing 'third way' approaches that voters can accept by a large majority."

"The poll shows people are looking for a constructive approach to tobacco, one that limited FDA regulation represents, and that they are more likely to support both companies and political figures that support the basic idea," they added. It was just the result PM was looking to use in its lobbying strategy, which continues today. Later that year, PM unveiled the results of polling by PSB and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. In the accompanying media release, Penn proclaimed that the results indicated that the public supported "tough meaningful FDA regulation of cigarettes that works towards goals like stopping kids from smoking and reducing the harm caused by tobacco." The research, he continued, "shows they [voters] want real action and an end to the bickering among alternatives."

As TobaccoWiki Editor Anne Landman observed in early 2007, if PM's preference for limited regulation is successful, it would:

generally preserve the status quo of "adult choice" about smoking; assure that cigarette manufacturers don't create any more risks than their products already pose; place FDA in charge of informing citizens about the risks of smoking; and prevent FDA from getting any authority to reduce or eliminate any naturally-occurring harmful constituents in cigarettes (by relegating this power only to Congress) ... If the currently-proposed bill to have FDA regulate tobacco preserves the status quo, then smoking rates will continue to fall at a painstakingly slow rate. That will be bad for public health, but great for Philip Morris.

Beyond Tobacco

Yucca Mountain, Nevada: The site proposed by the U.S. Government for a high-level nuclear waste dump (White House photo)In addition to the tobacco industry, PSB has worked for clients on other controversial projects. In one 1994 document, the firm listed its work in advising the American Nuclear Energy Council on developing "a proactive strategy to limit opposition to further study of the [Yucca Mountain nuclear waste] storage facility, and for immediate acceptance." (It failed.) Another campaign was for the oil company, Texaco, on "key regulatory issues affecting the oil industry including gasoline taxes, alternative fuels and reformulated mandates, and global warming." Another was a study for an unspecified "industry coalition on regulatory issues," which PSB boasted "was cited as a justification for a 90 day moratorium on federal regulations imposed by the Bush Administration in 1992." Another was for the Council on Packaging in the Environment (COPE), a packaging industry organization. Penn's firm claimed that they had been able to "guide COPE in influencing current policy making with regard to the environment." When he joined B-M as its global CEO, the press release crowed that PSB had been "closely associated with Burson-Marsteller on developing and implementing deregulation informational programs for the electric utilities industry and in the financial services sector."

Like many in the PR industry, Penn declines to list publicly the clients for whom he has worked. As a result, our knowledge about whose interests he represents is limited. We know even less about what advice he has offered to companies and industries mired in controversy.

But what we do know is troubling enough. Penn and others in his firm have worked for the tobacco industry, the nuclear industry, the packaging industry, an oil company and other industry groups. Notably, Penn's official Burson-Marsteller biographical note avoids mentioning his work for the Tobacco Institute, R.J. Reynolds or Philip Morris. It does mention that he has has worked for Hillary Clinton "for over six years, since he ran the polling and messaging for her successful election to the US Senate in 2000."

What is on the public record about Penn's work is just a tiny sliver of what he has been doing during the thirty-plus years that he has been in the business of interpreting what citizens think, so that his clients can better shape public policy to their commercial or political ends. The omission of tobacco interests from his official biography is itself an example of spin-doctoring, and it begs the question of who else he may be representing behind the scenes.

Of particular interest is that that Penn has been advising Hillary Clinton since 2000. During that time, he has worked for Philip Morris on at least one project aimed at getting bipartisan support for legislation affecting the tobacco industry. In May 2007 Bloomberg reported that in a blog post, titled "Workin' With Hillary," Penn wrote that one of the benefits of "mixing of corporate and political work" was that it was "helpful in cross-pollinating new ideas and skills." "And," he added, "I have found it good for business."

With Penn working for a U.S. presidential candidate, we are entitled to know more about his work. The question is not whether his dual roles are "good for business" — which is undoubtedly the case — but whether it is good for public policy. Now is the time for Penn to publish his full client list, covering at least the period that he has been advising Hillary Clinton. Clinton should insist that he does.

Bob Burton is the SourceWatch Managing Editor.

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