A Lake Oswego public affairs firm has come under scrutiny for its role in a broad-based public relations effort mounted by a company seeking to dispel criticism that its widely used herbicide, atrazine, is a public health threat.

The firm, Quinn Thomas Public Affairs, is headed by Doug Badger and Rick Thomas, who are both well known in Republican political circles in the state.

The public relations effort mounted by Syngenta Crop Protection, the subsidiary of a Swiss-based company, was found in company documents obtained through a lawsuit and reported in a lengthy article by the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch.

It’s a fascinating look at how the burgeoning public affairs industry works in seeking to influence regulators and shape public attitudes.

In this case, the company put out a solicitation for PR help and then hired the White House Writers Group, which was started by by a group of former presidential speechwriters. In its proposal to Syngenta, the White House group said it would work with Quinn Thomas. According to the article:

Quinn Thomas “was specifically touted for its success in ‘engaging’ lawyers who represent American consumers and in fighting public interest groups through ‘aggressive third party activity.’ WHWG said Quinn Thomas’ tactics had successfully slowed or reversed ‘activist momentum.'”

The article goes on to say that Quinn Thomas hired an Arizona researcher to look into a journalist who wrote several stories for the Huffington Post about concerns that atrazine — widely used as a weed killer — was being found in municipal water supplies around the Midwest and was a potential public health threat.

The March, 2010 report delivered to Quinn Thomas said the reporter, Danielle Ivory, had broken several stories about atrazine, “which means her professional reputation and ego are tied to the effectiveness of the attack on the chemical.”

The report also questioned her ties with environmental groups through the Tides Foundation. Tides helped fund the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which at one point employed Ivory. It also said she had worked for a “who’s who of anti-employer employers,” including longtime public broadcasting journalist Bill Moyers and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

(It was not just Ivory who was looking into atrazine. The New York Times had written in 2009 about concerns that atrazine was potentially dangerous in lower concentrations than previously thought.)

In addition, the PR Watch story said that Quinn Thomas also received a dossier from the same research company on the Natural Resources Defense Council, which published a critical report on atrazine.

PR Watch said that the writers group and Quinn Thomas also worked on an “array of tactics” to advance the company’s strategy of getting third parties to support of echo the company’s point of view.

One tactic was to have Syngenta’s chief scientist ghostwrite a chapter on atrazine that could then be included in a book challenging regulatory policies adverse to the company.

In 2011, a book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens the Public Health,” was released. It was authored by John Entine, a writer at the American Enterprise Institute who the White House Writers Group had contacted. The book included a chapter defending atrazine.

Rick Thomas, one of the partners at Quinn Thomas, declined to talk about the article, saying that the firm’s “general policy is that we do not comment on work that we may do on behalf of our clients.”


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