Cohen and Solomon: PR Industry and Despots

By now, most Americans are aware that the public relations industry serves a wide array of clients, from auto manufacturers and cosmetics companies to rock stars and politicians. But public relations for dictators? Sad but true: Every month, brutal governments on several continents shell out millions of dollars to PR firms based in the United States. And they get their money's worth. When the leaders of more than 140 countries posed for a group photo at the United Nations recently, quite a few cutthroats and torturers were in the picture. Some might have fallen from power long ago if not for the talents of well-paid professionals on Madison Avenue. For a thoroughly modern tyrant, a strong PR arsenal is as necessary as plenty of tanks, troops and spies. Acceptable images are crucial for regimes seeking diplomatic support and hefty aid from Uncle Sam. Sometimes, old-fashioned intimidation tactics do the trick. When the International Herald Tribune (jointly owned by the New York Times and Washington Post) referred to the "dynastic politics" of Singapore, the government there blew a gasket and went to court. The description was accurate -- one family has dominated Singapore for 30 years -- but the Herald Tribune buckled, printing a pathetic apology for a claim "completely without foundation." Later, a court ordered damages of $678,000. Perhaps mindful that Herald Tribune publishing facilities are based in Singapore, the newspaper paid up instead of appealing the absurd judgment. But despots can't always depend on U.S. news media to be so pliant. Bad press in the United States can lead to big problems back home. So, repressive regimes frequently try to buy themselves some good press. In late October, a prominent half-page ad in the New York Times -- headlined "Nigerian Military Government Prepares for Return to Democratic Rule" -- showcased a 1,000-word statement by Z.M. Kazaure, Nigeria's ambassador in Washington. Suffused with doubletalk, the ad pledged to restore democracy...three years from now. Although Nigeria's communique was not identified as an advertisement, most readers would understand it was bought and paid for. More insidious PR work on behalf of foreign governments, however, occurs without a clear sign of who's behind the media spin. When negative coverage of a country is unavoidable, ruling elites spend fortunes to deflect the blame. Early in this decade, the government of Colombia paid a few million dollars a year to the Sawyer/Miller Group -- a leading PR outfit in the U.S. -- to finger drug-trafficking outlaws as the cause of Colombia's widespread and deadly violence. Sawyer/Miller Group generated a steady wave of ads, video news releases, pamphlets and letters to editors -- as well as press interviews and meetings with editorial boards. The PR onslaught worked; U.S. journalists rarely cited the substantial evidence linking Colombian murder and mayhem to that nation's army and police, which remain deeply involved in the drug trade and death-squad activities. Madison Avenue's clientele includes regimes as near as Mexico and as far as Pakistan and China. "Governments that murder and jail their critics don't particularly need to worry about maintaining an attractive image among their own people," say authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. "Their public relations efforts are targeted primarily at an international audience -- in particular, to corporations, policy makers and news media responsible for shaping trade and foreign aid policies." Often the top staffers at PR agencies are former White House advisers. The process is distinctly bipartisan. A revolving door has spun savvy media manipulators (like Republican Craig Fuller and Democrat Howard Paster) into hyperdrive PR firms such as Hill & Knowlton. In one recent year, Hill & Knowlton took $14 million from governments with ample reasons to be concerned about their reputations. Some of the big checks were signed by officials of Kuwait, Turkey, Indonesia and Peru -- nations routinely abusing human rights. Two Hill & Knowlton clients known to have engaged in torturing political prisoners, Egypt and Israel, each receive U.S. foreign aid amounting to billions of dollars each year. The petro-monarchs of Kuwait have enjoyed a mutually rewarding relationship with Hill & Knowlton -- which received $10.8 million from the Kuwaitis within six months after Iraqi invaders forced them into exile in August 1990. Overall, Kuwait's royal family retained the services of more than a dozen PR and lobbying firms during the lead-up to the Gulf War. That war was great for business at Hill & Knowlton. But after the shooting stopped, the company slipped from the top rank of America's PR agencies. Taking its place was Burson-Marsteller, which got a big lift in 1993 when one client -- the Mexican government -- spent upward of $50 million to promote congressional passage of the NAFTA trade agreement. In a new book about the PR industry, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, Stauber and Rampton write that Mexico's blitz is ongoing: "By the mid-1990s, advertising giant Young & Rubicam -- Burson-Marsteller's parent corporation -- was raking in yearly Mexican revenues of over $100 million." That retainer comes from a country with two-dozen billionaires and 15 million people living in horrendous poverty. "As the world moves toward the end of the 20th century, it seems to have solved many of its image problems but few of its real ones," Stauber and Rampton point out. "Foreign policy planners have developed a frightening sophistication in their ability to combine military strategies with propaganda and psychological manipulation, but they have failed to eliminate starvation, disease, economic exploitation and violence -- the root causes of international conflict." The USA's top 15 public relations firms netted $1.04 billion last year. With their eyes on the financial prize, truth and justice are not in sight.

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