War Needs Good Public Relations

At the Rendon Group, a public-relations firm with offices in Boston and Washington, pleasant news arrived the other day with a $397,000 contract to help the Pentagon look good while bombing Afghanistan. The four-month deal includes an option to renew through most of 2002.

This is a job for savvy PR pros who know how to sound humanistic. "At the Rendon Group, we believe in people," says the company's mission statement, which expresses "our admiration and respect for cultural diversity" and proclaims a commitment to "helping people win in the global marketplace."

A media officer at the Pentagon explained why Rendon got the contract. "We needed a firm that could provide strategic counsel immediately," Lt. Col. Kenneth McClellan said. "We were interested in someone that we knew could come in quickly and help us orient to the challenge of communicating to a wide range of groups around the world."

As a PR outfit, Rendon has moved in some powerful economic circles, with clients including official trade agencies of the United States, Bulgaria, Russia and Uzbekistan. In Washington, the firm helped organize a series of conferences on "post-privatization management in the global telecommunications, electric power, oil and gas, banking and finance, and transportation sectors." Some of the clientele has been more liberal or touchy-feely: Handgun Control Inc. and the American Massage Therapy Association.

Rendon proudly notes that it provided "community and media relations counsel to the Monsanto Chemical Company in its effort to clean up several contaminated sites." Overseas, Rendon helped the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation to cope with labor strife and bad press when closing a refinery in Naples, Italy.

Some clients have been more shadowy. Rendon worked for the government of Kuwait in the early 1990s. And the firm made a lot of money by contracting with the CIA to do media work for the Iraqi National Congress, an organization seeking the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Now, the Rendon Group is facing what is perhaps its most challenging project yet -- spinning for a war in Afghanistan. With its sights set on media content in 79 countries, Rendon will use standard tools of the PR trade, such as focus groups, websites and rigorous analysis of news coverage.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that "we need to do a better job to make sure that people are not confused as to what this is about." It's typical of warmakers to claim that the biggest problems lie with others' faulty perceptions rather than their own deadly orders. But no amount of PR wizardry can change the cold facts: when a bomb hits a home for the elderly or a hospital or a residential neighborhood, or when a bombing campaign sets in motion a cataclysm of mass starvation.

If some people are "confused" about this war, it may be because they remember the rationale for it: Killing thousands of civilians is unconscionable.

Though you wouldn't know much about it from watching TV news or skimming the front pages, large numbers of Afghans -- many of them children and elderly -- are facing the likelihood of starvation because the bombing has forced recurrent halts to the movement of food-aid trucks from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Concern is growing among humanitarian aid workers that about 100,000 people are now in imminent peril. By winter, the number could be in the millions.

Meanwhile, on television, we see footage of air-dropped meals that amount to no more than 1 percent of what's needed to prevent people from starving. That's called good PR.

At this point, the playbook for the Pentagon's media game is a familiar one. Consider the words of Eugene Secunda, a professor of marketing and former senior vice president of the J. Walter Thompson firm. "Operation Desert Storm allowed only one view of the battle: the one authorized by the military," he observed in 1991. "Like travelers led from their buses by tour guides, the TV crews were given an opportunity to videotape the 'panoramic vista' before them, and then were whisked to the next officially authorized destination."

Writing a decade ago, Secunda foreshadowed the kind of coverage we're now seeing. "In the aftermath of the war with Iraq, strategic planners, preparing for future wars, are unquestionably examining the lessons gleaned from this triumphant experience. One of the most important lessons learned is the necessity of mobilizing strong public support, through the projection of a powerful and tightly controlled PR program, with particular effort directed toward the realization of positive news coverage."

As bombs routinely fall on Afghanistan, that's the kind of coverage that dominates television screens in the United States. For now, anyway, the Pentagon is winning its PR war at home.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.


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