Saturday 9 June 2012

Tyrants, Terrorists and the PR Firms Who Love Them

What do Adolf Hitler, Bashar al-Assad, Teodoro Obiang, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko and Hizbullah have in common? Apart of course from their murderous rap sheets, they all at one point or another have enlisted the services of public relations firms based in western countries.

In previous posts, I've alluded to the PR profession's very own PR problem. Public relations professionals are more often than not portrayed in films and on TV as gleefully amoral reprobates along the lines of Nick Naylor in the 2005 black comedy Thank You For Smoking and Washington 'spin doctor' Stanley Motss, played so memorably by Robert De Niro in the 1997 film Wag The Dog. Either that or they're portrayed as self-centred opportunists like Eli Gold in The Good Wife or Samantha Jones in Sex and the City or as tortured would-be altruists like fictional White House Communications Director Tony Ziegler in The West Wing.

Why the bad reputation? As with most bad reputations, it's a relatively small group of individuals who end up painting their entire community in a negative light. In the case of public relations, there indeed are practitioners who advocate on behalf of less-than-salubrious causes. And in the most extreme cases, there are indeed well-heeled PR firms in the UK, the US and elsewhere whose client lists have included the world's most appalling human rights abusers.

The dream PR client?
The role of western PR firms in propping up murderous regimes was recently highlighted in the aftermath of the suppressed anti-government revolt in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the wealthy but deeply repressive island nation in the Persian Gulf. Not long after protests broke out in the capital of Manama, it was revealed that the Bahraini government had enlisted the services of reputation management experts from Washington, DC PR firms Qorvis Communications and the Potomac Square Group, as well as the London-based Pelham Bell Pottinger.

While Bahraini forces were imprisoning and torturing protestors, these firms helped the regime denounce its most prominent critics as extremists and fifth-columnists for the Iranian regime through ominously titled divisions like Qorvis' Geo-Political Solutions branch. This campaign included fake tweeting, fake blogging (known as 'flogging') and other forms of online manipulation aimed squarely at activists like Maryam al-Khawaja, the current acting head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who continues to receive death threats while her father remains in captivity following the revolt.

Regrettably, the Bahrain case is far from unusual. The Monitor Group, a British PR firm with 29 worldwide offices, ran a PR campaign on behalf of the Qaddafi regime in Libya between 2006 and 2008 to the tune of about $3 million. In addition to helping prop up the Bahraini dictatorship, Qorvis was also for a time being paid some $60,000 a month by the repressive and obscenely corrupt regime of Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, while its colleagues at the Washington Group were in the pay of now deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Of course, the relationship between PR firms and despotic regimes is nothing new. American PR pioneer Ivy Ledbetter Lee, considered by many as the father of modern public relations, is today largely remembered for his relations with the Nazi regime through the controversial German chemical industry conglomerate IG Farben. Meanwhile, his one-time rival Edward Bernays - also considered by many as the 'father of PR' - helped engineer the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 on behalf of his blue-chip client United Fruit.

All this begs the question: are there any cases in which taking on a dictatorial regime as a PR client is morally fathomable? David Wynne Morgan, the chairman and CEO of Pelham Bell Pottinger (one of the firms linked to the Bahraini regime), argues that there are good reasons to take such clients on. In an RT interview, Morgan alleges that "A country frequently will modify its actions and its policies in order to achieve perhaps what is the greater ambition of having better relations with the people they're seeking to influence, so it's a balance." All fine and good in theory, David, but I have yet to see any compelling evidence of this, least of all in Manama.

It goes without saying, of course, that the vast majority of people in the PR profession will never have anything directly to do with propping up dictatorships, terrorist organizations or other clients with prodigious body counts. But even the best-intentioned communications professionals can find themselves in thorny ethical territory. In my previous capacity as a copy editor and translator for a Tokyo translation company, I was on more than once obliged to do work for Japan's largest cigarette manufacturer, Japan Tobacco. Should I have refused to do it? Perhaps I should have, but at the time I feared it would have jeopardized my job if I did, so I did what I was asked to do.

I like to think of myself as a morally and ethically principled human being. And as a public relations practitioner, I like to think I know where my line is as regards ethically indefensible work. As much as I enjoyed Thank You For Smoking, I would never, for example, knowingly and willingly go to work for the tobacco industry. Nor would I do the same for any other industries I personally find objectionable, such as firearms, genetically modified foods or the diet industry. I have mixed feelings about oil and gas (and not just because I live in Alberta). It's a problematic industry but a necessary one, and certain companies are far more laudable in their practices than others.

While I indeed find it horrifying that there are PR professionals like me out there working to burnish the reputations of the world's most vicious and corrupt regimes, I stop short of condemning individuals within said firms. I have yet to meet anybody in the profession who is motivated solely by money and a desire of edgy and exciting clients along the lines of Muammar Qaddafi, but it's easy to see how a person in the field could end up in a situation with a firm where it would be very difficult to extricate themselves from such a situation. Establishing a firm ethical stance early, finding employers whose values align with your own and remaining alert to ethically compromising situations is probably the only answer.

Meanwhile, I will continue to savour in the guilty pleasure of movies and TV shows about nefarious, morally pliant PR people. Because they're fun.

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