Founded in 1982 by activist and public relations veteran David Fenton, Fenton Communications (FC) is the leading advertising and public relations firm for advocacy groups on the political left, with locations in Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco. FC bills itself as “the largest public interest communications firm in the country.”
FC serves as an “umbrella” for “three independent nonprofit organizations” which it co-founded. These include: Environmental Media Services, which manages publicity efforts for environmental groups; New Economy Communications, a social justice group; and the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty lobby.
FC expressly refuses to represent “clients and projects that we don’t believe in ourselves.” Among the clients and projects that FC has worked for are Marxist-Leninist regimes in Central America and Africa, environmental groups, labor unions, and anti-war organizations. In addition, FC has offered its services to pro-Democrat political action committees and law firms, as well as to political campaigns against the death penalty and gun-ownership rights.
Throughout the 1980s, FC represented a number of Marxist governments and their supporters. Most prominent among these was the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, which the firm defended against foreign criticism while casting its internal opponents — the Contra guerrillas — as “death squads.” David Fenton acknowledged earning $100,000 annually for three years from contracts with Sandinista authorities. In 1983-84, FC registered with the U.S. Justice Department as an agent for: (a) Daniel Ortega’s Marxist regime in Nicaragua, (b) Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s Marxist regime in Grenada, (c) El Salvador’s Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization, the FMLN, and (d) the anti-American governments of Greece (under Andreas Papandreou) and Jamaica (under Michael Manley).
Another FC client was Jennifer Harbury, a far-left attorney and activist who charged that her husband, a Marxist guerrilla in Guatemala, had been killed with the complicity of the CIA.
In Africa, FC signed on to represent Angola’s MPLA regime, a Soviet puppet state. When anti-MPLA rebel leader Jonas Savimibi visited the United States in mid-1980s, FC, working for the Angolan government, placed ads in the New York Times and other leading newspapers denouncing him as “South Africa’s secret agent.”
Equally noteworthy has been FC’s business partnership with environmental groups. In 1988 and 1989, FC helped one such organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), promote misleading claims about the dangers of Alar, a pesticide then in use by the apple industry. On the basis of NRDC’s study of Alar, itself based on exaggerated probabilities rather than concrete empirical data, FC launched a media campaign that stoked consumers’ fears and captured the interest of television news programs, daily newspapers and daytime talk shows, fueling a backlash against apple growers. By some estimates, the apple industry suffered $200 million in lost revenue as a result of the FC campaign.
By contrast, FC and its client prospered. David Fenton subsequently boasted that his firm had “designed” the media campaign “so that revenue would flow back to NRDC from the public,” noting that FC had gained “$700,000 in net revenues from it.” Fenton Communications today cites the Alar campaign as a significant contribution to the “national debate” on pesticides.
Such fear-mongering has also worked for ice cream producers Ben & Jerry’s, another client of FC. Starting with a series of press conferences in the late 1990s, the FC-founded Environmental Media Services promoted claims that a hormone given to dairy cows to produce milk could cause cancer, though the FDA had found the hormone to be safe. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream manufacturers stood to gain from the bad press aimed at the dairy industry because their ice cream was made with hormone-free milk.
Joining forces with the Environmental Working Group, FC has also engineered media campaigns exaggerating the dangers posed by pesticides in tap water and baby food.
In 2003 FC created an ad campaign targeting the automotive industry for the Evangelical Environmental Network. The controversial ads alleged that consumers who bought sport utility vehicles were, in effect, supporting terrorism by using large amounts of fuel imported from the Middle East.
FC partnered with the Command Trust Network, a support group of activists and personal injury lawyers that opposes silicone breast implants. In a 2003 press release, FC misrepresented the findings of a scientific study by suggesting that such implants posed proven health risks. The campaign was damaging to implant manufacturers; the following year a federal court concluded that scientific evidence did not support Fenton’s claims.
During the 2004 U.S. presidential election season, FC helped the pro-Democrat activist group MoveOn.org stage its “Vote for Change” tour. This initiative combined musical acts (such as Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John Mellencamp, and the Dixie Chicks) with leftist advocacy groups like MoveOn and America Coming Together, and opposed the reelection of George W. Bush.
(Trevor S. Fitzgibbon, FC’s Director of Media Relations, assists in public relations strategy for MoveOn.org, the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, and Win Without War. According to FC, “Fitzgibbon’s messaging and PR efforts on behalf of MoveOn.org have helped position the online advocacy group as a national political force in American life.”)
In 2004 FC coordinated the efforts of its then-newest client, the anti-war group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, to oppose President Bush’s bid for re-election.
In 2005 FC did some work for Win Without War. And in an effort to influence the 2006 midterm elections in favor of Democrats, the firm teamed up with the anti-war entity Appeal for Redress, whose members include active-duty and reserve soldiers. Emphasizing the group’s military background, the resulting campaign urged “political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq.”
Other clients of Fenton Communications have included the AFL-CIO, Air America Radio, America Coming Together, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (renamed the American Association for Justice in 2006), the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Campaign for America’s Future, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Color of Change, the Columbia Foundation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Council on Foundations, Current TV, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Democracy for America, EarthJustice, the Energy Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Ford Foundation, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, Health Care for America Now, the Heinz Family Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Policy Studies, the TransAfrica, the magazine In These Times, the Iraq Policy Information Project, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Liberty Hill Foundation, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the Open Society Institute, Oxfam America, People for the American Way, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Planned Parenthood, the Ploughshares Fund, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, the Rainforest Action Network, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Rock the Vote, School of the Americas Watch, Service Employees International Union, the Sierra Club, the Tides Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Working Assets, the World Wildlife Fund, among many others.
FC also counts among its clients a number of pro-Democrat law firms such as Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach.
In 2009, FC signed two contracts (worth more than $390,000) with the wife of the Emir of Qatar, to develop “a communications action plan for an 18-month [media and public-relations] campaign” designed to delegitimize Israel and generate international support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which was under the political control of Hamas. Known as the “Al Fakhoora Project,” this campaign developed a very visible Web presence and claimed to have rallied some 10,000 activists “against the [Israeli] blockade on Gaza.”
Fenton disguised its Al Fakhoora project as an effort to improve the education of students in Gaza. In a document filed with the U.S. Justice Department, FC described Alfakhoora as a “student-led campaign to protect education from violence during war or conflicts, specifically in Gaza, and to lead an international public opinion awareness campaign that advocates for the accountability of those who participated in attacks on schools in Gaza.” The Alfakhoora project also featured a fundraising initiative whose goal was to generate a war chest of up to $100 million in addition to the money paid by the Qatari sheikh.