Cleansing the News From Pakistan

It's tough for even the best public relations outfits to spin really bad news. Recent examples like the surprisingly good showing of Islamic fundamentalists in current elections, a New York Times story claiming Pakistan sold equipment to North Korea enhancing its nuclear weapons capabilities, and reports that al Qaeda and Taliban leaders are now operating out of Pakistan, are either: a) a PR firm's biggest nightmare, b) a welcome and challenging task, c) financially rewarding, or d) all of the above. Whether there's bad news to spin or good news to promote, you can depend on a well-paid PR firm to step up to the plate.

Dan Pero, a founding partner in the newly established Sterling International Consulting Corporation, which recently inked a month-by-month media relations contract with Pakistan, told me he was "excited about the possibilities" and "anxious to tell" Pakistan's story." As Pero sees it, the story is about how a "key ally of the U.S. in the war against terrorism" is moving closer toward democracy.

Even before 9/11, Pakistan was shelling out major-league money to US-based PR firms with conservative credentials and GOP connections. At that time, PR challenges included the dispute with India over Kashmir, the country's nuclear weapons program, human rights violations by Pakistan's military leadership, and the use of child labor.

Since 9/11, however, the "war on terrorism" has taken center stage.

Pero said that Sterling International, an affiliated company of the Sterling Corporation, will receive $50,000 a month in an agreement that began in early September and will be evaluated at the end of November.

According to a short profile posted at the Sterling Corp's website, Pero, a twenty-five year PR/media relations veteran, recently served as the managing director of Weber-Shandwick Worldwide, "the largest public relations company in the world." He previously served as vice-president of public and community affairs for the Eckerd Corporation, one of the largest retail drug store chains in America. Pero's political credentials include stints running former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander's 1996 Presidential campaign and serving as chief of staff to Michigan Governor John Engler.

The two other Sterling Corp. partners are Fred Wszolek and Lori Wortz, both of whom have worked extensively for Republican Party candidates. In 1997, Wszolek founded Persuasion, Inc., "an issue management, public relations and political consultancy." Wortz, a former partner in Persuasion, Inc. broke into politics by working for Pat Robertson, and later ran Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign in Michigan. She's also worked for the Republican National Committee in several states.

Pero told me that the contract with Pakistan is the company's first foreign venture: We will be "taking our guidance and leadership from the embassy and Islamabad," he said. An early-October report in O'Dwyer's PR Daily pointed out that Sterling will "root out negative stories" and provide journalists with "background, response and clarification." From its home base in Lansing, Michigan, a state with a large Muslim population, the company intends to enlist Pakistani-Americans as "'message surrogates' [who] will be given talking points and media training by SICC. [The] firm will stimulate a grassroots campaign via e-mails, letters-to-the editor, one-on-one communications and newsletters," O'Dwyer's reports.

"Recruiting 'message surrogates' is a classic example of what in PR lingo is called 'the third party technique,'" Sheldon Rampton, the editor of PR Watch, an industry watchdog group told me. "Hiding a client's message behind someone else's face -- putting a scripted message in the mouths of seemingly independent spokespeople -- is a major example of a deceptive PR campaign," he added.

Cleansing the News from Pakistan

Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, was prior to 9/11 a strong supporter of the Taliban and al Qaeda, but has since become indispensable to President Bush's "war on terrorism." Because of this, the administration has overlooked, or preferred to ignore, press accounts that Pakistan abetted Osama bin Laden's escaping the U.S. net in Afghanistan with a number of al Qaeda colleagues -- some of whom may currently reside in Pakistan.

Pero said that while these are challenges for Sterling, he is confident that Musharaff, "who has pledged to turn his country toward democracy, was following through" on this "top priority."

These stories should have the telephones and fax machines at Sterling International working overtime.

• The Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) won 45 seats in the recent elections -- and the number could reach 50 when ballots from semiautonomous tribal areas in western Pakistan are counted, the Washington Times reported on October 17. The MMA is now the third-largest party behind the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML(Q), which supports President Pervez Musharraf and has 77 seats, and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which won 62 seats.

A coalition of Islamist parties named Fazlur Rehman as its candidate for Prime Minister. According to the Washington Times (October 17), Rehman supports Osama bin Laden and "once called on Muslims to kill Americans." Since the coalition doesn't have enough support within the National Assembly to form a government, "it is unlikely" that Rehman, will become prime minister. However, since "no other party has a majority," the MMA could play political "kingmaker" -- putting Rehman and fellow Islamists "in line for senior positions in Pakistan's next government."

• A report in the New York Times (October 18), charged Pakistan with being "a major supplier of critical equipment for North Korea's newly revealed clandestine nuclear weapons program." Intelligence officials told the Times that in the late 1990's, in exchange for weapons to help Pakistan "counter India's nuclear arsenal," Pakistan supplied "equipment, which may include gas centrifuges used to create weapons-grade uranium."

Pero, who told me that the company receives daily information feeds from Pakistan, in addition to their web-searching capacity, denied the New York Times' allegations.

Pakistan is not a newcomer to the PR game. In April of this year, the country hired Fleishman-Hillard (F-H) "to win Congressional approval for tariff relief," O'Dwyer's Daily reports. Donna Rohrer from F-H's Washington, D.C., office, recently noted that the campaign was now on hold -- "caught up in the national vise of our war on terror." F-H has been told to "back off from the media," she added.

F-H was promoting the "Pakistan Emergency Economic Development and Trade Support Act," introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), which was aimed at rewarding Pakistan for its support for the president's "war on terrorism," O'Dwyers PR daily reported. The bill, that would have given Bush "the authority to reduce or suspend import duties on Pakistani apparel," was opposed by the U.S. apparel manufacturers. Pakistan already exports about $2 billion in apparel to the U.S., according to O'Dwyers.

In January 2002, O'Dwyers PR Daily reported that the country had hired the "well-connected Houston-based Republican firm, Polland & Cook, to help smooth ties with the U.S. just prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. The purpose was to end U.S. economic sanctions against Pakistan, bolster trade and debt restructure." Gary Polland, who chairs the Harris County GOP, "is 37.5 percent owner of a joint-venture known as 'Team Barakat,' registered lobbyist for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan." The company was given an $180,000 contract that could be "renewable for another two years," O'Dwyer's pointed out.

How well connected to the GOP is Polland? In January 2001, he organized the Texas Inaugural Breakfast that was attended by Texas Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Majority Whip Rep. Tom Delay. The event also included a media panel consisting of John Fund (The Wall Street Journal), Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform), John Gizzi (Human Events) and Glen Bolger (Public Opinion Strategies).

According to the "The History of PRSA [Public Relations Society of America]," a new book by O'Dwyers PR Daily editor-in-chief, Jack O'Dwyer, a 1999 survey found that the occupation "PR specialist" ranked 43rd amongst 45 different types of public figures as "believable sources of information." O'Dwyer is publishing each chapter of the book on the Internet. Faced with the results of this study, the PRSA followed the PR path of least resistance - they all but buried the study, he writes.

Reading O'Dwyer's PR Daily is a good way to keep up-to-date on the industry. For more in-depth information, however, check out the publication and website of PR Watch.

PR Watch, a project of the Madison, WI-based Center for Media & Democracy, provides thoughtful and thorough analysis on the misinformation, disinformation and propaganda campaigns coming out of America's PR firms. As PR Watch points out on its homepage, it aims to "help the public recognize manipulative and misleading PR practices by exposing the activities of secretive, little-known propaganda-for-hire firms that work to control political debates and public opinion."

Many companies "took a big hit when the economy took a nosedive and lost a great deal of advertising revenue," said Sheldon Rampton. Lobbying for foreign governments "has historically been good business," he added. There's no question that there are profits to be reaped from the war against terrorism he pointed out. "After all," he said, "it's usually the countries with the worst records and biggest crises that tend to spend the most money on PR."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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