Septmeber 2008: Tips for consultants

Here's how to fool most of the people most of the time
September 1, 2008

With an alarmed public increasingly holding government and industry to account for a multitude of environmental and social outrages, the powers that be are scrambling to find ways to keep the status quo while appearing to respond. One of their favourite gimmicks is “consultation” – engaging a critical public in supposedly open, unbiased information exchange and trust-building, leading to “mitigation and accommodation” of any concerns that can’t be covered up or spun away.

Out of consideration for corporate and government lackeys obliged to face potentially hostile audiences while “consulting” the citizenry, I offer the following guidelines, drawn from time served as a participant-observer in several such processes. Familiarity with how the pros do these things may help their less experienced colleagues approach these sessions with a confidence befitting those who must rely on power and wealth to make up for their inadequacies of heart and brain.

If you are planning a consultation, you must first ensure that control of the process stays in corporate and government hands. Minimal public notice, short time frames, distant or expensive venues, and hired guns (process consultants) are all techniques that have been used successfully. It is also important to restrict citizen participation to the smallest number you can get away with. This may or may not include whatever segment of the public poses the greatest threat to the policy or development being proposed. Depending on the situation, you may be able to limit participation to identified “stakeholders” or to members of First Nations affected by the Supreme Court decisions on the “duty to consult”.

Never forget the proven strategy of “divide and conquer”. Involving at least some project supporters (eg. people vulnerable to the promise of jobs or contracts) will pay off big-time, legitimizing the proposal and diluting the impact of opposing voices. Moreover, by favouring some groups and excluding others, you may succeed in diverting much of the opposition’s energy into mutual suspicion and attacks on each other. However, where political pressure is strong and opponents united, consultations may have to be broadened to include the general public.

For guidance on the consultation itself, let’s use a typical scenario. Say the citizens of a small town are worried about the activities of a company exploring their local area for carcinogenic materials. Anti-exploration activists and cancer survivors have been scare-mongering, claiming that carcinogens are dangerous and should not be processed or distributed in the community. Under growing media scrutiny and the threat of lawsuits, the government has finally agreed to public consultation.

The consultation includes closed discussions with members of the town council, where the government and the company can identify and potential supporters work on “undecideds”. The “public” part consists of “information sharing” meetings on weekday evenings, with attendance limited to people who can show proof of year-round residence in the municipality.

The public meetings start with a welcome by the mayor, who then introduces the eight other people at the speakers’ table: staff from the Ministry of Malignancy Development and Myths (MMDM), representatives of the carcinogen exploration company, a lawyer from the municipality, and an “independent expert” recommended and paid for by government. Not all will speak, but the numbers may serve to impress and intimidate, and can provide back-up if someone forgets their talking points or gets tangled in a contradiction. Citizen participants are not introduced; simply treating them as an audience helps to reinforce where the power lies.

A company or government rep gives an initial presentation on the current status of the local exploration project. The purpose here is to maintain the illusion of “information sharing” by providing selected data or updates which are about to be public knowledge in any case.

Next to speak is the independent expert. This “doctor” (a Ph.D in any field will do) has the critical job of dealing with the issues of health and safety that have people worried.

If you’re the expert, you can begin with an ingratiating smile and a question: “How many of you feel fearful when you hear the word ‘cancer’?” People in the audience will likely look around, embarrassed and uncertain, then raise their hands tentatively. These uncomfortable feelings are an important part of the disempowerment process, and you can build on them.

“How many of you think that cancer is unnatural?” Some hands will go up again. Smile knowingly, and launch your pitch. “One thing I want to get out of your minds right away is this public perception of cancer. The fear of cancer is really based on a lack of information.” Let that sink in, then hit them with the zapper: “Did you know that cancer is actually just living cells multiplying? And cell multiplication is not only natural – it’s essential for life on Earth!

You project a photo of a jolly little baby onto the screen. “Look at this little fellow,” you say. “Do you realize that a baby is actually a bundle of multiplying cells? If cells didn’t multiply, this baby would never grow! In fact, there’d never even have been an embryo! Without multiplying cells, life simply wouldn’t exist!”

If the audience shows signs of restiveness here, it’s best to concede that there is a down-side. “Of course, sometimes some cells multiply too fast, or in the wrong places. That’s what we call ‘cancer’.” The people wait, thinking that now you’re getting to the nub.

So you ask, “How many of you feel fearful around the word ‘carcinogen’?” The audience grumbles again, but some raise their hands, and you continue. “Really, a carcinogen is just a chemical that speeds up cell multiplication. There are lots of carcinogens all around us, and many of them are very useful in the modern world.” The screen shows images of plastic drink bottles, cigarettes, digital clock-radios, household pesticides.

“To develop these carcinogens for society’s benefit, we first have to find them. That’s what carcinogen exploration companies do. The exploration process is quite elaborate and expensive. It involves heavy machinery” (project a picture of a back-hoe) “careful handling of samples” (a close-up of several large bottles) “and hi-tech instruments to measure the levels of carcinogens present” (a lab scene with white-coated technicians.)

Here again you must acknowledge people’s concerns about safety. Explain that carcinogen exploration is promoted and regulated by the Ministry of Malignancy Development and Myths (MMDM), while the advanced stages of exploration, and carcinogen development and distribution, come under the authority of the Canadian Malignancy Safety Commission (CMSC).

“These agencies are very important,” tell them, “because cancer can be unpleasant or even unsafe. So the CMSC has established ‘safe levels’ for different types of carcinogens, and adjusts them regularly to meet the needs of the cancer industry. We use advanced monitoring techniques to check for those levels in exploration samples and in people’s bodies.”

Now provide living proof. Pull a small bottle out of your pocket with a flourish. “This bottle I’m holding is filled with arsenic, a carcinogen of great value to industry. I’ve been working with arsenic for many years, and you can see I’m still here. That’s because I’ve never ingested more than the annual safe level of arsenic in any given year.”

For further reassurance, let the audience in on some industry jargon. “In carcinogen exploration and development, we follow the “ALARA” principle: keeping our exposure to these cancer-causing agents “As Low As Reasonably Achievable (A.L.A.R.A.) This way we minimize malignancies.”

Coming into the final stretch, try to capitalize on your “doctor” status. “Because malignancies do occur,” you can say, “we also work hard to mitigate or accommodate their effects on the human body. Mitigation techniques may involve the use of time, distance or shielding. For example, the ‘watch and wait’ approach in oncology allows time to do its job, and sometimes the cancer does not progress very far before the patient dies of other causes. Most cancer surgery, on the other hand, is based on the principle of distancing the malignancy from the rest of the patient’s body, as in mastectomy. Surgical insertion of shields into the body to keep malignancy from spreading is still experimental, since some shielding material has turned out to be carcinogenic itself.”

Following the expert’s presentation is a question and answer session. This needs skillful chairing to encourage acceptable questions while preventing unconstructive statements. To maintain fragmentation of the topic and avoid raising fundamental issues, the focus must be kept on exploration activities, not carcinogen development or distribution. Any quick thinkers at the table should be ready to pitch in to help a colleague out of a jam. Here are some typical questions and answers:

Q. – There’s supposed to be a “mitigation and accommodation” plan coming out of this process. What’s the “accommodation” part?

A – That’s a good question. Accommodation approaches related to carcinogens are usually referred to as palliative care. Canada has world-class facilities in this growing field.

Q. Is carcinogen exploration regulated so as to protect human health and the environment?

A. Ummmm, there are some activities that are regulated, yes.

Q - You already know from earlier work that the carcinogens are there. Why do you need to do all this new exploration?

A - Regulations now require highly verifiable data that historical exploration results don’t provide. And there’s also the money aspect. Remember, carcinogen exploration companies don’t earn revenue the way production companies do. We are totally dependent on investor greed and government complicity in the form of lavish subsidies, tax breaks and similar scams. To get that money we have to explore.

Q - Is it really safe to distribute carcinogens around our community?

A - Well, is it safe to drive a car? It depends on how you do it. Look, carcinogens are your world. They’ve been there all along. And we always try to stay within the levels that our friends in the regulation business keep defining as safe.

Q - How will carcinogen exploration and distribution benefit our community?

A – I’m glad you asked that. Exploration brings prosperity. Companies spend money and hire local people to work directly with the carcinogenic material. And when the exploration is successful, we have more carcinogens and more malignancies, creating additional jobs in malignancy research, medical services and palliative care.

The meeting should conclude with formal thanks and a speedy move to the nearest exit.

Helen Forsey is a writer and translator based in Ontario and Newfoundland. She gratefully acknowledges the source material and inspiration provided by individuals and entities that would almost certainly prefer to remain unnamed.