Part 1: CLINT EASTWOOD AS FEDERAL BUREAUCRAT

ps9.75;ld15Robert Weed is rolling.

He has shifted into oratorical high gear and now he's roaring toward the stirring emotional conclusion of his speech. He stands behind the podium in the unofficial uniform of the Serious Washington Insider -- a blue pin-stripe suit and red power tie -- while his shoulders bob to the rhythm of his words and his left fist pumps with passion. He has come to launch a crusade to liberate a despised minority group from the yoke of ancient prejudice. It is a minority group mocked by comedians, attacked by demagogic politicians, scorned by its fellow Americans. A hard-working, generous, 3-million-member minority group unfairly maligned as lazy and greedy.

Weed is talking about federal bureaucrats.

He doesn't call them that, though. He prefers the term "public servants." He says his crusade is designed to change "the public image of public servants." It is a crusade that Weed, who is the director of public affairs at the Office of Personnel Management, has been assigned by no less a public servant than the president of the United States. "This is a presidential initiative," Weed tells the crowd. "The first milestone assigned to OPM by the White House is to strengthen the image of public service."

And on this nasty December morning, Weed has braved a blizzard to travel to Rosslyn to tell the annual convention of the National Association of Government Communicators how he plans to give Americans warm, fuzzy feelings about federal employees.

First he unveils the brand new logo of his "Public Service Celebration Team." It's red, white and blue, of course, and it carries the official slogan of the campaign: "Serving America Today for a Better Tomorrow." Then he reveals his plans for an elaborate public relations campaign that will kick off on March 1 with receptions in six cities and then usher in a "year-round cycle of events," including "Public Service Recognition Week," which is the first week of May.

Meanwhile, Weed says, he hopes to persuade the Ad Council -- the public service advertising group that gave us Smokey the Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog -- to come up with an ad campaign that will "reinforce the image of public service." Weed hopes the ads will star Clint Eastwood. After all, Eastwood did an ad urging Americans not to litter on federal land, which practically makes him a federal bureaucrat himself.

Meanwhile, Weed outlines his "Federal Heroes" program, which is designed to publicize federal employees who have done amazing things, like the air traffic controller who helped save a crippled plane in Iowa and the Social Security Administration worker who delivers checks to the homeless in Boston. Weed plans to pick up the phone and pitch stories on his federal heroes to the producers of TV talk shows and the editors of magazines like People and Parade -- "just like any PR guy for anybody would do."

But Bob Weed can't do all this himself. Persuading Americans to love federal employees is too tough a task for Weed and his staff of 18 and his budget, which is only a measly million bucks a year. That's why, he told the crowd, he'd come to this convention of Government Communicators, a group composed entirely of people doing public relations work for government agencies. He desperately needs their help, he says, and he beseeches them to fill out an official Public Service Celebration Team volunteer card. He promises to reward them if they do.

"Let me tell you what you'll get," he says. "First of all, you'll get our OPM newsletter, Image Update, that talks about this campaign. And secondly, you'll get another newsletter that doesn't yet have a name that will be good ideas from different parts of the image campaign. Third, you'll get advance information on specific image-building activities in your area. And finally, you'll get a bumper sticker with our handsome logo and slogan . . ."

Wait a minute. Hold it right there.

Bumper stickers? Image Update? People magazine? Clint Eastwood?

A public relations campaign to polish the image of federal bureaucrats?

Sure. Why not?

Washington is a city full of government bureaucrats. It's also a city full of professional image-polishers. It was inevitable that they'd find each other. Part 2: 'HOW BIG IS A POUND OF FOG?' The National Solid Wastes Management Association has a PR team in Washington.

So does the Salt Institute. And the Sugar Association. And the Future Homemakers of America. And the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the House Education and Labor Committee. And the Federal Grain Inspection Service. And the Retired Officers Association. And the Selective Service System. And United Technologies. And the Air Force's Art and Museum Branch. And Saudi Arabia. And Angola. And Rhode Island. And the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. And . . .

. . . And on and on it goes. In Washington, every government agency, trade association, trade union, congressman, foreign government, corporation, public service group, private interest group and ad hoc coalition to save the world -- in short, everybody who's anybody in this town, or who wants to be -- has a PR person or a PR department or a PR firm plotting out a PR campaign.

In fact, some Washington organizations were created by PR people and exist only as PR entities, as we shall see in this little tour through the world of Washington public relations, an ethereal realm where teddy bears lobby Congress, where dubious guerrillas become freedom fighters, where Army officers teach generals how to stand and how to sit.

"Public relations," says Ray Hiebert, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and publisher of the Public Relations Review, "is the art and science of informing, influencing, neutralizing or changing public opinion." Edward Bernays, the oft-proclaimed "father of public relations," coined several other definitions. Some are sardonic: "to make large pedestals for small statues." And some are Orwellian: "the engineering of consent."

Any way you define it, public relations is a gargantuan industry in Washington. But nobody knows just how gargantuan. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that it's awful tough to specify exactly what constitutes public relations.

"It's a foggy business," says Jack O'Dwyer, the publisher of numerous PR industry trade publications. "How much does a pound of fog weigh?" he asks, sounding a bit like a Zen monk. "How big is a pound of fog?"

Another source of confusion is an absurd incongruity: The city's largest producer of public relations -- the federal government -- spends absolutely no money on public relations. Not one nickel. This is because the federal government is forbidden by law from spending money on public relations. Robert Weed's campaign, for instance, would be classified as "public information" or "public affairs" or "public-affairs-related activities." How much money do federal agencies spend on those activities? then-Sen. William Proxmire asked the General Accounting Office back in 1986. The GAO had the same problem as O'Dwyer: "Federal agencies do not uniformly define 'public affairs,' " it complained. Still, it managed to cough up some estimates: $337 million for "public affairs," $100 million for "congressional affairs" -- defined as "day-to-day contact with the Congress" -- and a whopping $1.9 billion for "public-affairs-related activities."

Which comes to more than $2.3 billion.

And that mammoth figure only includes federal agencies. It doesn't reflect the PR efforts of Congress, which are massive and eternal. Congressional offices are, as anyone who has ever worked in one can attest, giant machines for the greater glorification (and reelection) of the pol. The average congressional staff churns out a steady stream of constituent newsletters, computer-generated letters, daily press releases, weekly newspaper columns, one-minute radio spots called "beepers" and regular "video news releases" filmed in Congress's own TV studios and beamed by satellite to TV stations back in the home district. Which helps explain why the representatives' reelection rate approaches 99 percent.

And then there's the White House PR operation, which does everything the members of Congress do and a whole lot more.

"In the Washington area alone," says Hiebert, "there are at least 10,000 federal employees whose primary duty is what we'd call PR work."

The federal government's gigantic PR apparatus also serves an unofficial function: It's a farm team for Washington's gigantic private-sector PR industry.

PR prospects who prove their stuff in the federal government can generally find a warm place to park their Rolodexes when they head for the private sector. PR firms, like law firms, are the cushy nirvanas on the other side of Washington's legendary revolving door. So Jody Powell, who was Jimmy Carter's press secretary, goes to Ogilvy and Mather Public Affairs. And Elaine Crispen, who was Nancy Reagan's press secretary, goes to Hill and Knowlton. And Maj. Philip Soucy, who was among the Defense Department's 1,000 public affairs officers, becomes manager of military public affairs at British Aerospace. And Barbara Gleason, who was director of public affairs for the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, becomes assistant director for public affairs at the Nonpre- scription Drug Manufacturers Association. And . . .

Watching the government's $2 billion PR industry intermarry with Washington's immeasurable (but huge) private-sector PR industry, a cynic might be tempted to conclude that virtually everything that happens in Official Washington is part of a PR campaign.

But that would be exaggerating. Slightly.

Part 3: WHAT DO PR PEOPLE DO, DADDY? What does your daddy do? Rachel Swanston was asked one day when she was 5 or 6 years old.

He's a public relations man, she replied.

What does that mean? her friend asked.

He talks on the phone and gives parties, she answered.

"And that's pretty accurate," says her father, David Swanston, president of Stackig/Swanston Public Relations.

Indeed it is. The little tyke came a lot closer to describing what PR people do than most PR people do.

If public relations is a "foggy business," as O'Dwyer put it, then it's at its foggiest in Washington, where PR people are generally pushing abstractions -- ideas, opinions, images, influence. Which might account for the fogginess of the prose that Washington's PR people churn out when trying to describe what they do. The sentences in their promotional brochures sound like this: "The Canzeri Group focuses its efforts on developing and implementing programs that integrate its clients into the national decision-making process." Or like this: "The KSK PR Department is tightly niched into business to business communications for companies with high technology emphasis."

As the jargon flies, the fog deepens: "designs and carries out strategic communications plans" . . . "creates and manages image enhancement campaigns" . . . "issues management" . . . "issues tracking" . . . "communications audits" . . . "strategic communications" . . . "crisis communications" . . . "audience research" . . . "consumer image building" . . . "comprehensive communications program design . . ."

Burn through this fog of words and you find that what PR people do is this: They send out press releases and audio press releases and video press releases. They teach their clients how to appear on television without looking foolish and how to appear before congressional committees without looking foolish. They write speeches and brochures and congressional testimony. They ghostwrite editorials and op-ed pieces and then try to persuade newspaper editors to run them. They lobby Congress and they run grass-roots campaigns to persuade constituents to bombard Congress with letters. They stage press conferences and other media events. And they serve as the Washington equivalent of matchmakers, introducing their clients to the movers and shakers of government and the media: "That's really what we do," says Frank Mankiewicz of Hill and Knowlton. "We get clients time in the right forum to present their point of view."

And, yes, Rachel, they do spend a lot of time talking on the phone and giving parties.

They also do some secret stuff that they won't talk about.

Take, for example, the "nationwide grass-roots campaign to combat restrictive laws in 50 states" touted in the Susan Davis Companies's rather voluminous self-promotional brochure.

Susan Davis won't talk about that campaign. Davis -- who is the chairman and CEO of the Susan Davis Companies, which includes Susan Davis Communications Group and Susan Davis International and Susan Davis Events Group and Susan Davis Advertising Group -- will only say that it "could be tobacco-related."

Why the secrecy? Especially about something as noble as a "campaign to combat restrictive laws?"

"We really are behind-the-scenes players," she says, "and I'd like to keep it that way."

Very modest. Admirably self-effacing. Particularly coming from a woman who has named five companies after herself. Part 4: DUELING VISUALS ON CAPITOL HILL Pamela Kostmayer is standing in the closet, looking for her jeans.

Kostmayer, a veteran Washington PR woman, uses the closet at Kostmayer Communications as a warehouse for the props -- "visuals," she calls them --

that she uses to attract the at- tention of politicians and TV cameras.

She pokes around a bit but can't find the jeans, which she'd silk-screened with statistics and used as a visual in her campaign against a bill limiting textile imports a few years back. But she does find a shirt, an Izod shirt that she used as a visual in a PR campaign for a bill to stop the counterfeiting of designer clothes. Still rummaging through the closet, she tells that story: She invited members of Congress to a lunch where her clients touted the bill, and then she invited the pols to take a souvenir shirt. "And on the day of the vote, we sent them a letter saying, 'If you got a white shirt, it was phony. If you got a colored shirt, it was real. You have the benefit of knowing what is counterfeit and what is not. The American consumer does not. Vote yes on HR-blah-blah-blah.' "

The bill passed too, she says. "And we'd get calls from the members' secretaries, saying, 'The shirt doesn't really fit.' And I'd say, 'It's not really meant to fit. It's supposed to be a visual.' "

Kostmayer is the queen of the Capitol Hill visual, which is a major PR art form in this era of photo-op politics. A former TV reporter and Senate staffer, she is also the wife of Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa.), who is himself a former PR man. But Pam Kostmayer learned the art of the visual at that ancient fountainhead of PR gambits -- the circus. Promoting Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the early '70s, she'd show up before the circus hit town, arrange a local contest and stick the lucky winner atop an elephant in the circus parade. Inevitably, the TV cameras loved it. "The best visual of all," she says, "is somebody on an elephant."

Back in Washington in the '80s, she quickly realized that the same rules apply in political PR. "National network news is what I'm aiming for," she says. "There are 22 minutes of news; the rest is commercials. Out of that, maybe five or six minutes comes out of Washington. And I've got to compete with everything else that's happening. So what can I give them that will almost guarantee that cameras will show up? A visual. Because that's what they need. Who wants to see another chart?"

So Kostmayer gives her clients -- and the cameras -- visuals. For Mothers Against Drunk Driving, she parked a wrecked car against the backdrop of the Capitol dome. That "made air." For a group of undertakers, she put caskets and funeral urns in a Senate conference room. That made air too. But those were mere warm-ups for her epic textile bill campaign. For that, she had a college kid dressed as a teddy bear pulling a wagon through the halls of Congress, delivering little imported teddy bears with labels informing the pols how much more these cuddly critters would cost the parents of America's toddlers if the textile bill passed.

The "textile bear" got so much publicity that Kostmayer sent it back out every week to deliver other little goodies -- like jeans that said, "The textile bill's got America by the seat of the pants" and socks saying, "Don't let the textile bill sock it to

America."

Pretty soon, the groups supporting the textile bill responded with visuals of their own -- "the world's largest jeans," which were four stories high; a 60-foot red-white-and-blue zipper labeled "Win one for the zipper"; and life-size cardboard photos of workers who would allegedly lose their jobs if the bill was defeated.

It was dueling visuals on Capitol Hill.

Which is not unusual. These days, Capitol Hill frequently plays host to the sort of goofy visuals and pseudo events that made the 1988 presidential campaign so, well, memorable. A congressman attaches a five-pound bag of sugar to his "dear colleague" letter about a sugar subsidy bill. The American Association of Retired Persons sends members of Congress baseballs with the slogan, "Don't throw consumers a curve." A band of representatives clusters around a casket to denounce a particular bill as "dead on arrival." Another band of representatives vandalizes Toshiba products to display its displeasure with the Toshiba Corp.'s selling of sensitive technology to the Soviets.

"This is what we feel about Toshiba," said Rep. Helen Bentley (R-Md.) before swinging her sledgehammer into a boom box as the TV cameras churned.

Sometimes, the search for the perfect visual goes a tad too far, as in the now-infamous incident when the Drug Enforcement Administration lured a crack dealer to Lafayette Park -- where there had never been a crack arrest -- so that George Bush could hold up a bag of dope for the TV cameras and say, "This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House . . ."

In fact, these dueling visuals have gotten so out of hand that even Pamela Kostmayer's carefully planned, quasi-official pseudo events can be upstaged by goofy guerrilla pseudo events. Which is what happened last fall, when Kostmayer put on the offical groundbreaking ceremony for the National Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial in Judiciary Square.

"I had President Bush," she says. "I had gold shovels. I had crying widows. I had the president of the United States and the attorney general and the director of the FBI. I mean, it was a stellar lineup, it was a great visual. I had 28 television crews, I had 54 news organizations, and I didn't make network. What made network? A flag-burning on the steps of the Capitol with about six people."

That's the cruel law of life in Washington's PR jungle: You live by the visual and you die by the visual. Part 5: 'WHEN THE MEDIA COME BANGING ON YOUR DOOR . . .' "We tell them how to sit," says Col. Gordon Bratz, "and we tell them how to stand."

Bratz has a bizarre job. He's a special assistant in the Secretary of the Army's Office of Public Affairs, which means that he's the guy who trains America's generals to face their most frightening enemy -- the television camera. These are three- and four-star generals, towers of power, guys who fought the ChiComs in Korea and the VC in Nam, guys who can kill you with their bare hands. But when they see a TV camera, fear freezes them into man's most primal defensive pose.

"In that first stand-up interview, most of the generals are going to stand like this," Bratz says. Feigning terror, he stiffens up and cups his hands over his crotch.

His audience howls with laughter. Bratz is at the convention of the National Association of Government Communicators, leading a seminar titled "How to Put Together a Media Training Program for Your Agency."

"So we're going to tell them how to stand," he continues. "Put your feet about a foot apart with one ahead of the other. That typically prevents them from going like this" -- Bratz rocks from side to side. "I tell them, if you do want to rock, rock forward because that engages the audience . . . In sitting, I'll tell them to sit in a straight chair and sit bent away from the camera, not into the camera with the knees, because that elongates the upper thigh."

"Say that again," a woman calls out. She's sitting in the back of the room, furiously scribbling notes.

Of course: This is important stuff. In an era of sound-bite politics, anybody who has power, or covets it, needs to know how to use television.

"How ready are you," Lew Brodsky, direc- tor of public affairs for the Selective Service System, asks the government communicators, "for the day when the me- dia come banging on your door wanting an on-camera interview about a controversial situation?"

Pretty ready, they respond: About three-quarters of the assembled communicators reveal that they or their bosses have already hired PR people to teach them how to stand and how to sit and how to speak in sound bites and how to react when Mike Wallace barges in.

They are hardly alone. In 1986, when the Senate decided to televise its proceedings, the Republicans hired media whiz Roger Ailes to teach the senators how to look senatorial on the Senate floor.

Which is not surprising. These days, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, political power grows out of the tube of a television. In the Third World, revolutionaries don't attack the palace anymore, they seize the TV station. In Washington, things are slightly different: People don't seize TV stations, they simply build their own studios.

Official Washington is crammed with TV studios. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has one. So does the U.S. Department of Commerce. And the House. And the Senate. And the RNC. And the DNC. And the National Education Association. And the AFL-CIO. And . . . And those institutions that don't have studios rent them.

Why? So they can create the technological version of the old press release -- the video press release. Some of these are full of video razzmatazz, but most are simply interviews. The Head Honcho is fed questions by his PR man and the result is beamed up via satellite to any TV station that might want it. The stations sometimes splice in questions asked by their own reporters so it looks as if they interviewed the Head Honcho themselves. Despite the fraudulence factor, these are known, believe it or not, as "actualities." Members of Congress love actualities because they enable the distinguished statesmen to appear on home district TV stations that can't afford a Washington bureau. But it isn't just members of Congress who use them. The U.S. Army Reserve Office's Individual Ready Reserve Campaign did a great video news release, which featured rumbling tanks and guys in camouflage and lots of shooting. The Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association did a less theatrical one. So did the Association of Flight Attendants and the Postal Service and . . .

In fact, these days, you're not a real Washington mover and shaker until you've beamed your image out to a waiting world via satellite.

But first you have to learn how to stand and how to sit and . . .

". . . Thirdly," Col. Bratz tells his seminar, "you have to be interesting. I think this is very difficult for military people. They're very dull . . ."

A woman in the audience raises her hand and says that at her agency, they give TV training to four or five honchos at a time and then let them criticize one another's performance.

"We don't do that," Bratz says, "because a lot of senior officers would just as soon have their training be private. They've told me that. A four-star general doesn't like to fall on his face in front of a one-star . . ." Part 6: TO PRESERVE AND PROTECT THE WIDGET

Gary Nordlinger is pretending to hold a phone up to his ear.

"Is this Mr. Smith?" he asks.

"Yes, it is," he answers.

"I'm Gary Nordlinger from the Widget Manufacturers of America," he says. "We have a real problem going on. Congress is going to be voting tomorrow on HR-12, a bill which continued on page 30 PUBLIC RELATIONS continued from page 17 would ban the sale of widgets. We need to kill this right away. Mr. Smith, may we send a letter to your member of Congress and sign your name to it?"

And that, says Nordlinger, head of Nordlinger Associates, a Washington political PR firm, is the way you do "grass-roots PR."

"Grass roots" is the big buzzword in Washington PR these days. It's also the third stage in the evolution of lobbying. In the beginning there was the lobbyist. He got friendly with pols and tried to persuade them to vote the way his clients wanted. But now everybody has a lobbyist. "Your lobbyist cancels out my lobbyist," Nordlinger says. "So where else do you turn?"

To a PAC, perhaps. You augment your lobbyist with a political action committee that donates money to the pol's campaign. "But as PACs rise and more and more people give money," says Jack Bonner, head of Bonner & Associates, another local grass-roots PR firm, "your $5,000 check to him isn't going to buy you a hell of a lot."

So what's a PR guy to do? "You create a situation," says Mankiewicz of Hill and Knowlton, "in which public opinion back home either is or appears to be on your side of the issue."

Which is a pretty good definition of grass-roots PR.

The prototype of the modern grass-roots effort was the American Bankers Association's 1982 fight against a bill to compel banks to withhold 10 percent of their customers' interest, just as employers withhold taxes on workers' earnings. ABA lobbyists fought the bill, which was backed by President Reagan, but failed to beat it. So the ABA tried a grass-roots effort, sending 15,000 "repeal kits" to member banks. The kits contained pre-packaged letters to members of Congress; pre-written op-ed pieces, which bankers were to re-type and submit to their local paper; and posters to display in their banks. Meanwhile, the banks inserted millions of protest postcards in their customers' monthly statements, along with the suggestion that they send them to Congress.

The result was a deluge of mail that succeeded in killing the bill.

Since then, grass roots has become much more sophisticated. Pre-printed postcards, for instance, are now considered passe: too obviously a mass mailing. The new thing is laser-printed letters complete with ersatz individual letterheads. "What you're able to do now," says Nordlinger, "is come up with 25 or 30 different messages, combine that against 10 different colors and sizes of paper and 10 different typefaces and" -- he starts tapping the numbers into his pocket calculator -- "and you're already up to 3,000 combinations there. It's not like getting a ton of postcards with nothing but a signature."

To find those voters most inclined to sign letters on a given issue, grass-roots PR people turn to direct mail experts who can produce lists of voters in virtually any demographic, geographic or special interest group. "They have the country broken down into little grids -- everything from BMW owners who are yuppies to people who own Fords and go fishing on Sunday," says Bonner. "It's mass marketing. It's the same way that they sell Time magazine. Literally."

Sometimes, of course, grass-roots PR people are less than completely upfront about who is behind their campaigns. When the Natural Gas Supply Association tried to mobilize public support for ending price controls on natural gas, the trade association didn't use its own name, it invented a group called the Alliance for Energy Security. When a collection of utility and coal companies battled a bill to control acid rain, they invented the Citizens for the Sensible Control of Acid Rain, which sent out a mailing of 800,000 letters.

Perhaps the most infamous dubious grass-roots campaign came in 1985, when the Environmental Protection Agency debated permitting the burning of toxic waste in special incinerator ships off Brownsville, Tex. Rollins Environmental Service, which operates land-based incinerators, thought that proposal might hurt its business, so it hired Robert Beckel, who was Walter Mondale's deputy campaign manager the previous year, to run a grass-roots campaign against it. Beckel created an ersatz environmental group called Alliance to Save the Ocean, which phoned Brownsville residents and urged them to fight the plan. The tactic raised some criticism, but Beckel defended his actions as standard operating procedure in Washington: "Why does Walter Mondale call his committee the Committee for the Future of America as opposed to the Walter Mondale Committee?"

Predictably, the result of all this grass-roots organizing is a huge increase in mail on Capitol Hill. In the early '70s, Congress received about 15 million letters a year. By last year, the total was more than 300 million. And the vast majority of those letters were inspired by PR campaigns. "Never, other than the mega-issues of our day, is mail truly spontaneous," says Bonner. "All the rest of the mail is prompted by somebody."

Does this avalanche of manufactured emotion bother the politicians who get buried under it? No way. It just gives them additional ammunition for their own postage-free direct mail PR campaigns.

"They love it," says Nordlinger. "When you send me your computer-generated letter, if I'm a member of Congress, I can send you my computer-generated letters. At that point, you're going to start getting two to three targeted letters a year on what Congressman X is doing to preserve and protect the widget." He grins. "Dear Mr. Smith: Bringing you up to date on what I've been doing about widgets . . ."

There's a term for this on Capitol Hill: Our computers answering their computers. PART 7: A NUTRITIONIST NAMED MERYL STREEP "We got rolled," says Frank Mankiewicz. "When you're dealing with a nutritionist named Meryl Streep, you haven't got a chance."

Mankiewicz is talking about how his company, Hill and Knowlton, the largest PR firm in Washington, got clobbered, got creamed, got its proverbial clock cleaned last year by a little environmental group in a big public PR battle over Alar and apples.

"It was a very good example of what the hell can go wrong," he says.

Alar is a chemical used to keep apples on trees longer, thus producing a brighter red color. In 1973, the chemical was first identified as a carcinogen, and in 1985 the EPA began taking slow steps toward banning it. Ralph Nader and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group, lobbied for an immediate ban. But the issue never really caught fire -- until the NRDC hired a PR man named David Fenton.

Fenton was hired to publicize an NRDC study called "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food." The report alleged that apples sprayed with Alar represented a dangerous cancer risk for children because of the huge amounts of apple products kids consume. Usually, reports like that live for a day in the media and then fade forever into the ether. Not this one. Fenton engineered a PR campaign that was the worst thing to happen to the apple since Eve.

First, he arranged to keep the report secret until the CBS show "60 Minutes" could "break" the story to 40 million viewers on February 26, 1989. Using the show as an ad, the NRDC released the report the next morning at 13 simultaneous news conferences around the country. The result was enormous publicity.

But Fenton wasn't finished yet. A week later, just as the first media blitz was fading, he launched his second: Actress Meryl Streep held a Washington press conference to announce the formation of an NRDC spinoff group, Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits. Streep also testified before a congressional committee and did 16 satellite TV interviews with local news shows across the country. The Hollywood angle fueled another blizzard of publicity: the "Today" show, "Donahue," "Entertainment Tonight," People magazine, USA Today (the newspaper), USA Today (the TV show) and . . .

"Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC's message that average American consumers (not just the policy elite in Washington) could not avoid hearing it," Fenton wrote in a memo about the campaign. "The idea was for the story to achieve a life of its own."

Which it did, much to the dismay of the apple industry and its PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. "I knew as soon as '60 Minutes' was over," says Josephine Cooper, a former EPA official who now heads up H&K's Environment and Energy group, "that we had a problem."

Cooper and her cohorts snapped into action. They rounded up scientists and doctors who declared that apples were safe. Then they spread that information via countless press releases, video press releases and audio press releases. They took out full-page ads in newspapers around the country. They held luncheons to brief House and Senate staffers. They also lobbied the federal agencies responsible for food safety -- the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture -- begging them to defend the beleaguered apple. Finally, three weeks later, the agencies did, announcing jointly that apples were safe to eat and that Alar was not an "imminent hazard" to children. Immediately, Hill and Knowlton dispatched that statement via mailgrams to state and local officials around the country. They sent similar messages to thousands of grocers and pediatricians.

But none of it did much good. Apple sales plummeted, schools booted the fruit out of their cafeterias, and editorial cartoonists had a field day making apple jokes. Finally, Uniroyal, which manufactures Alar, withdrew it from the market. A few months later, the EPA announced a plan to phase it out entirely.

PR had killed Alar.

"NRDC and their hired PR counsel did a superb job of playing the news media like a Stradivarius," says Jack Bonner. "The industry did not get their message across and they took punches and went down for the count."

Ironically, though, the Alar battle will probably make Hill and Knowlton -- and other corporate PR firms -- lots of money in the long run. "I think a lot of industries said, 'My God, there but for the grace of God goes us,' " says Cooper. When those industries find themselves in environmental fights of their own -- which will happen more often in the '90s, many PR people predict -- they'll turn to PR firms for help. Which is why Hill and Knowlton is setting up environmental divisions in its offices around the country.

"It's very good for business," says Cooper, "and I think we're well-positioned to maximize the opportunities." Part 8: A GUERRILLA WITH A PR FIRM In Angola, government soldiersaided by Cuban troops were killing and being killed by guerrillas aided by South Africa.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the battle was fought on a more lucrative -- and more ludicrous -- level: It was a PR War.

The war began on September 16, 1985, when Paul Manafort, head of Black, Manafort, Stone -- the PR firm that gave America Lee Atwater -- flew to Angola with Christopher Lehman. Three days earlier, Lehman had left his job as special assistant to the president for national security affairs to join Manafort's firm. Three days later, Lehman and Manafort persuaded Jonas Savimbi, head of Angola's UNITA guerrillas, to sign a $600,000-a-year contract with Black, Manafort.

A guerrilla with a PR firm?

Why not? Right-wing Guatemalan guerrillas have had PR reps here. So have left-wing Salvadoran guerrillas. And such dubious characters as Ferdinand Marcos, the shah of Iran, Manuel Noriega and the Sandinistas, among many others.

Savimbi wanted to get American weapons for his war against the leftist government of Angola. Unfortunately, he didn't have the greatest reputation. Trained in guerrilla warfare in Red China in the '60s, Savimbi had espoused a strident blend of Maoism and Black Power. After his rivals took over Angola in the '70s, however, Savimbi jettisoned Maoism and Black Power and found a new patron -- the apartheid government of South Africa. Now, gunning for American arms, he needed to create a "freedom fighter" image. So he hired Black, Manafort, a firm with close connections to the Reagan White House.

And Black, Manafort engineered a brilliant PR campaign. It opened with an exclusive interview with "60 Minutes" -- filmed in the Angolan bush and timed to air when Savimbi came to Washington on a private jet in January 1986. Meticulously coached in the fine arts of TV repartee and Hill lobbying, Savimbi spent the next 10 days doing interviews, meeting with pols -- including President Reagan -- and being cheered by conservatives at a banquet at the Capital Hilton. By the time he flew off -- in a private jet loaned by an anonymous Texas millionaire -- Savimbi had won assurances that his guerrillas would get American arms.

Obviously, the other side -- the Angolan government -- needed some reinforcements on the PR front. So it hired Gray and Co. for a reported $50,000 a month. The firm, which has since merged with Hill and Knowlton, was headed by Robert Keith Gray, a former Eisenhower administration official with close ties to the Reagans. Gray's media whizzes tutored Angolan foreign trade minister Ismael Gaspar-Martins in the art of TV repartee for his debate with Savimbi on the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," advising him to wear a nice conservative suit so he'd look more respectable than Savimbi, who favors funky Third World Nehru jackets.

But Gray's campaign reached its absurd apogee when Daniel Murphy -- a retired admiral and George Bush's former chief of staff, who was handling the Angola account -- touted the deep religious convictions of his Marxist clients. "I was very surprised to learn that everybody goes to church on Sunday," Murphy told the Wall Street Journal. "At least one-third of the Politburo members are practicing Presbyterians."

By then, the Young Conservative Foundation had gotten into the act. Irate that a fellow Republican like Gray would undercut the beloved Savimbi, the group launched a PR campaign of its own. First, it picketed the Powerhouse, as Gray called his office, but that protest fizzled when the activists failed in their efforts to ignite a hammer-and-sickle flag. A few days later, however, they returned, storming the Powerhouse and handcuffing themselves to a banister. Four of them were arrested, which inspired the media coverage they were seeking.

"They didn't want to talk," Mankiewicz, then a Gray vice president, complained to The Washington Post. "They wanted a media event."

A PR man complaining about a media event? It was the sound of defeat. A month later, after reams of bad publicity, Gray dropped the Angola account.

"It was too difficult," Mankiewicz recalls. "We were becoming the issue instead of Angola."

Ironically, Angola's PR efforts are now masterminded by David Fenton, the man who beat Mankiewicz in the Alar battle.

But Mankiewicz still has plenty of foreign clients. This fall, he traveled to Hungary to advise the Hungarian Communist Party -- which recently changed its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party for obvious PR reasons. "That wasn't my advice," Mankiewicz says. "But it would have been if they hadn't done it already." Part 9: 'SODOM AND GOMORRAH WAS AN ATTENTION-GETTER' The room was packed with PR people.

A couple of hundred of them gathered in the Capital Hilton last December for the monthly luncheon of the Washington chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. They drank white wine, ate lukewarm chicken, applauded at least 10 past presidents of the chapter and then listened as the current president introduced the guest speaker -- Harold Burson, chairman of Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest PR firms on God's green earth.

As Burson stepped up to speak, a protester dashed to the podium and draped it with blood-stained rabbit fur. "Mr. Burson represents the fur industry," she exclaimed, "and on behalf of the millions of animals that have been killed -- the foxes, the lynx, the minks, the rabbits, chinchillas, who have been electrocuted, who have been beaten to death -- we bestow the Public Relations Hall of Shame award . . ."

The audience groaned and hissed.

PR people catch a lot of flack. Not just from animal lovers and Savimbi supporters but from skeptics and scoffers in all walks of life who feel, for some reason, that PR people are somewhat less than totally honest.

"Somehow, if you say the words 'public relations,' " says Soucy, who does PR for British Aerospace, "folks want to rush off and take showers because they've just been in the presence of something contaminated."

It's the great irony of PR: The public relations business, which is composed entirely of experts in the art of manufacturing public images, has a terrible public image. On the popularity scale, PR people are no doubt right down there with lawyers and politicians. Maybe almost as low as journalists.

How come?

" 'Cause we ain't all choirboys," says Louis Priebe, who handles PR for the Salt Institute. "Joseph Goebbels practiced PR for Adolf Hitler."

True enough. But it probably isn't Goebbels' "big lie" that Americans associate with PR. It's all those little half-truths and weasel words and slick image campaigns. It's the sight of New York City disguising gutted buildings with decals that make them look occupied. It's the stories about the PR guys who help elect the pols and then traipse off to do PR work for people who want something from those pols. It's candidates campaigning in flag factories and presidents who won't make a speech until their personal pollster checks the public pulse. It's the negative ads and the spin doctors and the staged events and the symbol-mongering. It all combines to produce the vague feeling that nothing in politics or government is really real anymore.

These days, the fog produced by the "foggy business" is so dense that even the so-called "insiders" have trouble telling image from reality. Ronald Reagan compared the contras to our Founding Fathers so often that he actually seemed to believe it was true. Remember all the pundits who said that Mikhail Gorbachev was just a slick PR man? Gorby turned out to be the real thing. Or did he? Could tearing down the Berlin Wall be just another PR stunt? It's tough to tell these days. And that's the problem: We've seen so many slick visuals that we don't trust our eyes anymore. We've heard so many soothing slogans that we can't believe our ears. Nonstop PR has left Americans sated and jaded.

"PR," says Soucy, "has come to mean 'to take the unpalatable and make it palatable.' "

Of course, PR people don't see it that way. Quite the contrary. They consider themselves members of an honorable profession, descendants of a long line of people who have educated and elevated public opinion for centuries. In the speech that was interrupted by the fur protester, Harold Burson traced that lineage back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Soucy traces it back even further, to some even bigger names:

"For what did Christ perform miracles?" he asks. "I'm not comparing us to Him. I'm simply saying that when you use the term 'public relations gimmick' or 'attention-getter,' well, I'm sorry: Sodom and Gomorrah was an attention-getter. Man responds to attention-getters."

So why haven't any of America's estimated 150,000 PR people produced an attention-getting PR campaign to improve the wretched public image of the PR business?

Ray Hiebert, publisher of the Public Relations Review, thinks he knows why.

"They don't want to," he says with a sly smile. "They like it the way it is. They want to be seen as the custodians of some kind of sinister magic." Part 10: FEDERAL BUREAUCRATS REDUX Robert Weed is still rolling.

When we left him, Weed was exhorting the National Association of Government Communicators, pleading for help in his official campaign to enhance the "public image of public service," promising free copies of Image Update and free bumper stickers.

And now his voice is rising to a crescendo as he launches into his stirring conclusion: "We have truth on our side. We're going out saying to the American people: 'We want you to take a fresh look at your public employees, at the system that puts them into place, and we know that when you look at these people, you'll trust them' . . . If they take a fresh look at us, they're gonna recognize that we have truth on our side and they'll say, 'Yes, I can understand why you're proud to be a public employee.' And I'm proud to be a public employee. And I'm proud to be with you this morning. Thank you very much."

He gets a polite round of applause. Then he entertains some questions.

The first questioner notes Weed's rousing endorsement of public servants and then inquires why federal employees hadn't gotten a decent raise lately.

The second questioner launches into a diatribe, lambasting government-bashing presidents who appoint political hacks to boss around dedicated, experienced public servants.

Wait a minute. Hold it right there.

Here is a crowd composed entirely of government PR people and they don't seem terribly excited about a government PR campaign in their behalf. They aren't agog about receptions and Image Updates and ad campaigns and bumper stickers. They want something else. They want the one thing that PR just can't provide:

They want substance.

Don't they know what city they're in? would ban the sale of widgets. We need to kill this right away. Mr. Smith, may we send a letter to your member of Congress and sign your name to it?"

And that, says Nordlinger, head of Nordlinger Associates, a Washington political PR firm, is the way you do "grass- roots PR."

"Grass roots" is the big buzzword in Washington PR these days. It's also the third stage in the evolution of lobbying. In the beginning there was the lobbyist. He got friendly with pols and tried to persuade them to vote the way his clients wanted. But now everybody has a lobbyist. "Your lobbyist cancels out my lobbyist," Nordlinger says. "So where else do you turn?"

To a PAC, perhaps. You augment your lobbyist with a political action committee that donates money to the pol's campaign. "But as PACs rise and more and more people give money," says Jack Bonner, head of Bonner & Associates, another local grass-roots PR firm, "your $5,000 check to him isn't going to buy you a hell of a lot."

So what's a PR guy to do? "You create a situation," says Mankiewicz of Hill and Knowlton, "in which public opinion back home either is or appears to be on your side of the issue."

Which is a pretty good definition of grass-roots PR.

The prototype of the modern grass-roots effort was the American Bankers Association's 1982 fight against a bill to compel banks to withhold 10 percent of their customers' interest, just as employers withhold taxes on workers' earnings. ABA lobbyists fought the bill, which was backed by President Reagan, but failed to beat it. So the ABA tried a grass-roots effort, sending 15,000 "repeal kits" to member banks. The kits contained pre-packaged letters to members of Congress; pre-written op-ed pieces, which bankers were to re-type and submit to their local paper; and posters to display in their banks. Meanwhile, the banks inserted millions of protest postcards in their customers' monthly statements, along with the suggestion that they send them to Congress.

The result was a deluge of mail that succeeded in killing the bill.

Since then, grass roots has become much more sophisti- cated. Pre-printed postcards, for instance, are now considered passe: too obviously a mass mailing. The new thing is laser-printed letters complete with ersatz individual letterheads. "What you're able to do now," says Nordlinger, "is come up with 25 or 30 different messages, combine that against 10 different colors and sizes of paper and 10 different type- faces and" -- he starts tapping the numbers into his pocket calculator -- "and you're already up to 3,000 combinations there. It's not like getting a ton of postcards with nothing but a signature."

To find those voters most inclined to sign letters on a given issue, grass-roots PR people turn to direct mail experts who can produce lists of voters in virtually any demographic, geographic or special interest group. "They have the country broken down into little grids -- everything from BMW owners who are yuppies to people who own Fords and go fishing on Sunday," says Bonner. "It's mass marketing. It's the same way that they sell Time magazine. Literally."

Sometimes, of course, grass-roots PR people are less than completely upfront about who is behind their campaigns. When the Natural Gas Supply Association tried to mobilize public support for ending price controls on natural gas, the trade association didn't use its own name, it invented a group called the Alliance for Energy Security. When a collection of utility and coal companies battled a bill to control acid rain, they invented the Citizens for the Sensible Control of Acid Rain, which sent out a mailing of 800,000 letters.

Perhaps the most infamous dubious grass-roots campaign came in 1985, when the Environmental Protection Agency debated permitting the burning of toxic waste in special incinerator ships off Brownsville, Tex. Rollins Environmental Service, which operates land-based incinerators, thought that proposal might hurt its business, so it hired Robert Beckel, who was Walter Mondale's deputy campaign manager the previous year, to run a grass-roots campaign against it. Beckel created an ersatz environmental group called Alliance to Save the Ocean, which phoned Brownsville residents and urged them to fight the plan. The tactic raised some criticism, but Beckel defended his actions as standard operating procedure in Washington: "Why does Walter Mondale call his committee the Committee for the Future of America as opposed to the Walter Mondale Committee?"

Predictably, the result of all this grass-roots organizing is a huge increase in mail on Capitol Hill. In the early '70s, Congress received about 15 million letters a year. By last year, the total was more than 300 million. And the vast majority of those letters were inspired by PR campaigns. "Never, other than the mega-issues of our day, is mail truly spontaneous," says Bonner. "All the rest of the mail is prompted by somebody."

Does this avalanche of manufactured emotion bother the politicians who get buried under it? No way. It just gives them additional ammunition for their own postage-free direct mail PR campaigns.

"They love it," says Nordlinger. "When you send me your computer-generated letter, if I'm a member of Congress, I can send you my computer-generated letters. At that point, you're going to start getting two to three targeted letters a year on what Congressman X is doing to preserve and protect the widget." He grins. "Dear Mr. Smith: Bringing you up to date on what I've been doing about widgets . . ."

There's a term for this on Capitol Hill: Our computers answering their computers. PART 7: A NUTRITIONIST NAMED MERYL STREEP

"We got rolled," says Frank Mankiewicz. "When you're dealing with a nutritionist named Meryl Streep, you haven't got a chance."

Mankiewicz is talking about how his company, Hill and Knowlton, the largest PR firm in Washington, got clobbered, got creamed, got its proverbial clock cleaned last year by a little environmental group in a big public PR battle over Alar and apples.

"It was a very good example of what the hell can go wrong," he says.

Alar is a chemical used to keep apples on trees longer, thus producing a brighter red color. In 1973, the chemical was first identified as a carcinogen, and in 1985 the EPA began taking slow steps toward banning it. Ralph Nader and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental group, lobbied for an immediate ban. But the issue never really caught fire -- until the NRDC hired a PR man named David Fenton.

Fenton was hired to publicize an NRDC study called "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food." The report alleged that apples sprayed with Alar represented a dangerous cancer risk for children because of the huge amounts of apple products kids consume. Usually, reports like that live for a day in the media and then fade forever into the ether. Not this one. Fenton engineered a PR campaign that was the worst thing to happen to the apple since Eve.

First, he arranged to keep the report secret until the CBS show "60 Minutes" could "break" the story to 40 million viewers on February 26, 1989. Using the show as an ad, the NRDC released the report the next morning at 13 simultaneous news conferences around the country. The result was enormous publicity.

But Fenton wasn't finished yet. A week later, just as the first media blitz was fading, he launched his second: Actress Meryl Streep held a Washington press conference to announce the formation of an NRDC spinoff group, Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits. Streep also testified before a congressional committee and did 16 satellite TV interviews with local news shows across the country. The Hollywood angle fueled another blizzard of publicity: the "Today" show, "Donahue," "Entertainment Tonight," People magazine, USA Today (the newspaper), USA Today (the TV show) and . . .

"Our goal was to create so many repetitions of NRDC's message that average American consumers (not just the policy elite in Washington) could not avoid hearing it," Fenton wrote in a memo about the campaign. "The idea was for the story to achieve a life of its own."

Which it did, much to the dismay of the apple industry and its PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. "I knew as soon as '60 Minutes' was over," says Josephine Cooper, a former EPA official who now heads up H&K's Environment and Energy group, "that we had a problem."

Cooper and her cohorts snapped into action. They rounded up scientists and doctors who declared that apples were safe. Then they spread that information via countless press releases, video press releases and audio press re- leases. They took out full-page ads in newspapers around the country. They held luncheons to brief House and Senate staffers. They also lobbied the federal agencies responsible for food safety -- the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture -- begging them to defend the beleaguered apple. Finally, three weeks later, the agencies did, announcing jointly that apples were safe to eat and that Alar was not an "imminent hazard" to children. Immediately, Hill and Knowlton dispatched that statement via mailgrams to state and local officials around the country. They sent similar messages to thousands of grocers and pediatricians.

But none of it did much good. Apple sales plummeted, schools booted the fruit out of their cafeterias, and editorial cartoonists had a field day making apple jokes. Finally, Uniroyal, which manufactures Alar, withdrew it from the market. A few months later, the EPA announced a plan to phase it out entirely.

PR had killed Alar.

"NRDC and their hired PR counsel did a superb job of playing the news media like a Stradivarius," says Jack Bonner. "The industry did not get their message across and they took punches and went down for the count."

Ironically, though, the Alar battle will probably make Hill and Knowlton -- and other corporate PR firms -- lots of money in the long run. "I think a lot of industries said, 'My God, there but for the grace of God goes us,' " says Cooper. When those industries find themselves in environmental fights of their own -- which will happen more often in the

'90s, many PR people predict -- they'll turn to PR firms for help. Which is why Hill and Knowlton is setting up environmental divisions in its offices around the country.

"It's very good for business," says Cooper, "and I think we're well-positioned to maximize the opportunities." Part 8: A GUERRILLA WITH A PR FIRM In Angola, government soldiers aided by Cuban troops were killing and being killed by guerrillas aided by South Africa.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the battle was fought on a more lucrative --

and more ludicrous -- level: It was a PR War.

The war began on September 16, 1985, when Paul Manafort, head of Black, Manafort, Stone -- the PR firm that gave America Lee Atwater -- flew to Angola with Christopher Lehman. Three days earlier, Lehman had left his job as special assistant to the president for national security affairs to join Manafort's firm. Three days later, Lehman and Manafort persuaded Jonas Savimbi, head of Angola's UNITA guerrillas, to sign a $600,000-a-year contract with Black, Manafort.

A guerrilla with a PR firm?

Why not? Right-wing Guatemalan guerrillas have had PR reps here. So have left-wing Salvadoran guerrillas. And such dubious characters as Ferdinand Marcos, the shah of Iran, Manuel Noriega and the Sandinistas, among many others.

Savimbi wanted to get American weapons for his war against the leftist government of Angola. Unfortunately, he didn't have the greatest reputation. Trained in guerrilla warfare in Red China in the '60s, Savimbi had espoused a strident blend of Maoism and Black Power. After his rivals took over Angola in the '70s, however, Savimbi jettisoned Maoism and Black Power and found a new patron -- the apartheid government of South Africa. Now, gunning for American arms, he needed to create a "freedom fighter" image. So he hired Black, Manafort, a firm with close connections to the Reagan White House.

And Black, Manafort engineered a brilliant PR campaign. It opened with an exclusive interview with "60 Minutes" -- filmed in the Angolan bush and timed to air when Savimbi came to Washington on a private jet in January 1986. Meticulously coached in the fine arts of TV repartee and Hill lobbying, Savimbi spent the next 10 days doing interviews, meeting with pols -- including President Reagan -- and being cheered by conservatives at a banquet at the Capital Hilton. By the time he flew off -- in a private jet loaned by an anonymous Texas millionaire -- Savimbi had won assurances that his guerrillas would get American arms.

Obviously, the other side -- the Angolan government -- needed some reinforcements on the PR front. So it hired Gray and Co. for a reported $50,000 a month. The firm, which has since merged with Hill and Knowlton, was headed by Robert Keith Gray, a former Eisenhower administration official with close ties to the Reagans. Gray's media whizzes tutored Angolan foreign trade minister Ismael Gaspar-Martins in the art of TV repartee for his debate with Savimbi on the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," advising him to wear a nice conservative suit so he'd look more respectable than Savimbi, who favors funky Third World Nehru jackets.

But Gray's campaign reached its absurd apogee when Daniel Murphy -- a retired admiral and George Bush's former chief of staff, who was handling the Angola account -- touted the deep religious convictions of his Marxist clients. "I was very surprised to learn that everybody goes to church on Sunday," Murphy told the Wall Street Journal. "At least one-third of the Politburo members are practicing Presbyterians."

By then, the Young Conservative Foundation had gotten into the act. Irate that a fellow Republican like Gray would undercut the beloved Savimbi, the group launched a PR campaign of its own. First, it picketed the Powerhouse, as Gray called his office, but that protest fizzled when the activists failed in their efforts to ignite a hammer-and-sickle flag. A few days later, however, they returned, storming the Powerhouse and handcuffing themselves to a banister. Four of them were arrested, which inspired the media coverage they were seeking.

"They didn't want to talk," Mankiewicz, then a Gray vice president, complained to The Washington Post. "They wanted a media event."

A PR man complaining about a media event? It was the sound of defeat. A month later, after reams of bad publicity, Gray dropped the Angola account.

"It was too difficult," Mankiewicz recalls. "We were becoming the issue instead of Angola."

Ironically, Angola's PR efforts are now masterminded by David Fenton, the man who beat Mankiewicz in the Alar battle.

But Mankiewicz still has plenty of foreign clients. This fall, he traveled to Hungary to advise the Hungarian Communist Party -- which recently changed its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party for obvious PR reasons. "That wasn't my advice," Mankiewicz says. "But it would have been if they hadn't done it already." Part 9: 'SODOM AND GOMORRAH WAS AN ATTENTION-GETTER' The room was packed with PR people.

A couple of hundred of them gathered in the Capital Hilton last December for the monthly luncheon of the Washington chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. They drank white wine, ate lukewarm chicken, applauded at least 10 past presidents of the chapter and then listened as the current president introduced the guest speaker -- Harold Burson, chairman of Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest PR firms on God's green earth.

As Burson stepped up to speak, a protester dashed to the podium and draped it with blood-stained rabbit fur. "Mr. Burson represents the fur industry," she ex- claimed, "and on behalf of the millions of animals that have been killed -- the foxes, the lynx, the minks, the rabbits, chinchillas, who have been electrocuted, who have been beaten to death -- we bestow the Public Relations Hall of Shame award . . ."

The audience groaned and hissed.

PR people catch a lot of flack. Not just from animal lovers and Savimbi supporters but from skeptics and scoffers in all walks of life who feel, for some reason, that PR people are somewhat less than totally honest.

"Somehow, if you say the words 'public relations,' " says Soucy, who does PR for British Aerospace, "folks want to rush off and take showers because they've just been in the presence of something contaminated."

It's the great irony of PR: The public relations business, which is composed entirely of experts in the art of manufacturing public images, has a terrible public image. On the popularity scale, PR people are no doubt right down there with lawyers and politicians. Maybe almost as low as journalists.

How come?

" 'Cause we ain't all choirboys," says Louis Priebe, who handles PR for the Salt Institute. "Joseph Goebbels practiced PR for Adolf Hitler."

True enough. But it probably isn't Goebbels's "big lie" that Americans associate with PR. It's all those little half-truths and weasel words and slick image campaigns. It's the sight of New York City disguising gutted buildings with decals that make them look occupied. It's the stories about the PR guys who help elect the pols and then traipse off to do PR work for people who want something from those pols. It's candidates campaigning in flag factories and presidents who won't make a speech until their personal pollster checks the public pulse. It's the negative ads and the spin doctors and the staged events and the symbol-mongering. It all combines to produce the vague feeling that nothing in politics or government is really real anymore.

These days, the fog produced by the "foggy business" is so dense that even the so-called "insiders" have trouble telling image from reality. Ronald Reagan compared the contras to our Founding Fathers so often that he actually seemed to believe it was true. Remember all the pundits who said that Mikhail Gorbachev was just a slick PR man? Gorby turned out to be the real thing. Or did he? Could tearing down the Berlin Wall be just another PR stunt? It's tough to tell these days. And that's the problem: We've seen so many slick visuals that we don't trust our eyes anymore. We've heard so many soothing slogans that we can't believe our ears. Nonstop PR has left Americans sated and jaded.

"PR," says Soucy, "has come to mean 'to take the unpalatable and make it palatable.' "

Of course, PR people don't see it that way. Quite the contrary. They consider themselves members of an honorable profession, descendants of a long line of people who have educated and elevated public opinion for centuries. In the speech that was interrupted by the fur protester, Harold Burson traced that lineage back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Soucy traces it back even further, to some even bigger names:

"For what did Christ perform miracles?" he asks. "I'm not comparing us to Him. I'm simply saying that when you use the term 'public relations gimmick' or 'attention-getter,' well, I'm sorry: Sodom and Gomorrah was an attention-getter. Man responds to attention-getters."

So why haven't any of America's estimated 150,000 PR people produced an attention-getting PR campaign to improve the wretched public image of the PR business?

Ray Hiebert, publisher of the Public Relations Review, thinks he knows why.

"They don't want to," he says with a sly smile. "They like it the way it is. They want to be seen as the custodians of some kind of sinister magic." Part 10: FEDERAL BUREAUCRATS REDUX Robert Weed is still rolling.

When we left him, Weed was exhorting the National Association of Government Communicators, pleading for help in his official campaign to enhance the "public image of public service," promising free copies of Image Update and free bumper stickers.

And now his voice is rising to a crescendo as he launches into his stirring conclusion: "We have truth on our side. We're going out saying to the American people: 'We want you to take a fresh look at your public employees, at the system that puts them into place, and we know that when you look at these people, you'll trust them' . . . If they take a fresh look at us, they're gonna recognize that we have truth on our side and they'll say, 'Yes, I can understand why you're proud to be a public employee.' And I'm proud to be a public employee. And I'm proud to be with you this morning. Thank you very much."

He gets a polite round of applause. Then he entertains some questions.

The first questioner notes Weed's rousing endorsement of public servants and then inquires why federal employees hadn't gotten a decent raise lately.

The second questioner launches into a diatribe, lambasting government-bashing presidents who appoint political hacks to boss around dedicated, experienced public servants.

Wait a minute. Hold it right there.

Here is a crowd composed entirely of government PR people and they don't seem terribly excited about a govern- ment PR campaign in their behalf. They aren't agog about receptions and Image Updates and ad campaigns and bumper stickers. They want something else. They want the one thing that PR just can't provide:

They want substance.

Don't they know what city they're in?