Front Groups

A front group is a public relations technique that is used “to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of undisclosed special interests”[1] . Such special interests are usually large organizations or industries whose business practices and motives are often ethically questionable and conflicting with public interest. Therefore, front groups attempt to appear independent and their source of funding is often concealed from public knowledge[2] .

Prominent individuals, corporations, industries, and political parties fund front groups to advance their agendas under the guise of an impartial group. While front groups serve to support the agenda of a larger and more controversial organization, they often appear to the public as a grass roots or human-interest organization[3] . The degree to which the underlying sponsorship of such groups is concealed to the public often varies, but for the most part the funding organization is completely hidden from public knowledge[4] .

Common characteristics:

The initiatives of front groups serve to support the goals and interests of the funding organization. Front groups:

· conceal or refrain from mentioning the main sources of their funding
· are created by the funding organization
· shield the sponsoring third party from having to be responsible and liable for initiatives
· draw negative attention away from the organization they represent and direct positive attention towards it
· employ credible individuals such as industry opinion-leaders and experts
· have noble sounding names
· claim that their initiatives and goals are solely their own[5]


Pioneering Example: Edward L. Bernays

One of the earliest examples of front groups as a public relations tactic originated with Edward L. Bernays. In 1913, Bernays was hired by actor Richard Bennett to help overcome public resistance to his play, “Damaged Goods[6] . The play addressed various taboo sexual subjects including prostitution and venereal diseases; topics, which Bennett feared, would meet resistance from law enforcement and the general public. Bernays, who was then working as an editor for the “Medical Review of Reviews”, organized a group called “Medial Review of Reviews Sociological Fund” and invited medical “experts” and socially prominent individuals to join. The stated “mission” of the front group was to raise awareness of venereal diseases through education, with the overall goal of reducing their occurrence . However, the unstated purpose of this group was to gain widespread public acceptance of Bennett’s controversial play, a purpose that Bernays and his sociological fund were successful in accomplishing[7] .


Contemporary Example: Non-Smoker Protection Committee

A more contemporary example is that of the Non-Smoker Protection Committee, a front group funded by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. In 2006 this group devised a strategy to gain support for the “Arizona Non-Smoker Protection Act” which would overturn smoking bans in bars and restaurants. This group highlighted that smoking would be permitted in such public places, but that non-smokers would be protected through signage, floor-to-ceiling partitions, and separate ventilation systems[8] .

The strategy used to achieve support of this Act involved “placing a weaker measure on a ballot that is designed to confuse voters and derail a stronger initiative”[9] . By presenting the tobacco-friendly initiative under the guise of a nonsmoker-friendly group, this committee assisted the effort to overturn existing smoking bans and prevent their implementation in other cities, thus benefiting the business interests of silent benefactor R.J. Reynolds.

Ethical Considerations

Critics of the use of front groups as a public relations strategy consistently argue that such third-party lobbying practices are inherently deceptive. These tactics allow organizations, industries, and individuals to advance business interests under the guise of public interest[10] . While the degree to which front groups deceive the public is important when considering the ethical implications of such endeavors, the basic principles of honesty and full disclosure in public relations are too often violated. According to the codes of professional standards outlined by the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), such dishonest and deceptive forms of communication are deemed unethical.

The basic tenets of the code professional standards outlined by CPRS contend that all communication must be honest and accurate and all interests supported by practitioners be disclosed to the public[11] . Because the common tactics of such groups include concealing sources of funding and framing “truths” to meet the agenda of the supporting business interests, these groups would be deemed unethical from the perspective of Canada’s professional association of public relations practitioners. Similarly, PRSA’s code of ethics identifies front groups as a specific example of improper conduct relating to the provision of disclosure of information. This provision states that all practitioners must be honest, avoid deceptive practices, and disclose the sponsors for causes and interests represented[12] .

It could be argued that front groups can still be utilized as an ethical public relations technique if principles of honesty and full disclosure are considered. However, the undeniable reality that front groups rely heavily on the tactics of dishonesty and concealment implies that this strategy often crosses the line into deception and manipulation[13] .
  1. ^ Fitzpatrick, K.R. & Palenchar, M.J. (2006). Disclosing special interests: Constitutional restrictions on front groups. Journal of Public Relations Research, 18(3), 203-224.
  2. ^ Fitzpatrick & Palenchar, 2006.
  3. ^ SourceWatch. (2009a). Front groups. Retrieved November 8, 2009 from http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Front_groups.
  4. ^ SourceWatch. (2008). Portal: Front groups. Retrieved November 8, 2009 from http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Portal:Front_groups.
  5. ^ SourceWatch, (2009a).
  6. ^ Rampton, S. (2008). Front groups: A history. Retrieved November 8, 2009 from http://www.frontgroups.org/node/418.
  7. ^ Rampton, 2008.
  8. ^ SourceWatch. (2009b). Non-smoker protection committee. Retrieved November 10, 2009 from http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Non-Smoker_Protection_Committee.
  9. ^ SourceWatch, 2009b, ¶ 4.
  10. ^ Fitzpatrick & Palenchar, 2006.
  11. ^ Canadian Public Relations Society. (2009). Code of ethics. Retrieved November 5, 2009 from http://www.cprs.ca/aboutus/code_ethic.aspx.
  12. ^ Public Relations Society of America. (2009). Code of ethics: Preamble. Retrieved November 9, 2009 from http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/.
  13. ^ Parsons, P.J. (2008). Ethics in public relations: A guide to best practice (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.