Meet the Corporate PR Firm Hired to Sell a Murderous Foreign Regime to the American Public
Hillary Clinton is not the only person doing P.R. to legitimize the government of Honduras that rose to power in the wake of the U.S.-backed 2009 coup, overseeing a dramatic escalation in violence against Indigenous, human rights and environmental defenders.
The powerful U.S.-based P.R. firm Ketchum—which is owned by Omnicom—was paid $421,333 last June for a one-year contract with the Honduran government that continues into the present. One of the largest such agencies in the world, the firm is headquartered in New York and claims to operate in 70 countries on six continents. It describes itself as “a global communications firm that loves to do break through work for clients” and boasts: “we’re just crazy enough to believe you can actually change the world.”
The company is representing the government of Honduras in the midst of an escalating human rights crisis defined by a spate of assassinations of Indigenous environmental activists, including the renowned social movement leader Berta CÃ¡ceres. Today, Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on earth for environmental defenders, with activists reporting that death squads are making a comeback. Human rights and environmental groups from around the world are calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to halt military aid to the Honduran government until an investigation into CÃ¡ceres’ murder is fully carried out. Meanwhile, new reporting from the New York Times shines light on police leaders' unchecked power to order assassinations.
Given this reality, it is no surprise that the Honduran government has hired a U.S.-headquartered P.R. firm. As Carol Schachet of the social movement organization Grassroots International put it in an interview with AlterNet, “The government of Honduras is not wanting to change its behavior. They want to change their image.”
Deal Struck in Midst of Public Theft Scandal
The contract went into effect on June 16 of 2015 when thousands were taking to the streets of Honduras to demand that President Juan Orlando HernÃ¡ndez step down over allegations that his right-wing National Party stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s social security system—the Honduran institute of social security (with the Spanish initials IHSS).
HernÃ¡ndez had risen to power in a questionable 2013 election, hailing from the same National Party as his predecessor Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who became president in the aftermath of the coup in a sham 2009 vote.
Notably, one of the signatories to the Ketchum contract is Hilda HernÃ¡ndez, sister of the president and minister of communications, who was directly implicated in the IHSS scandal, as she was one of three officials at the time in charge of funding for the National Party. Leaked documents indicate that the Party unlawfully embezzled funds from IHSS to their own coffers.
When a corruption scandal erupted in neighboring Guatemala, mass protests that some called the “Guatemalan Spring” forced the ouster of the country’s School of the Americas-trained President Otto PÃ©rez Molina.
Yet, HernÃ¡ndez politically survived his government's scandal and maintains his seat to the present day, despite the devastation that ordinary Hondurans were forced to endure. A comment to the Guardian in June by Pedro Amador, an English teacher, captures public outrage at the time. “My father paid into IHSS all his working life but since he got cancer two years ago, they did nothing apart from give us prescriptions,” said Amador. “We had to buy every medicine he needed and my elderly mother and sister basically nursed him at home as there were no staff to attend to him. He died from negligence, because all the money was stolen.”
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly thrown its backing behind HernÃ¡ndez.
Focus on Influencing U.S. Media
While little is known about the specifics of the P.R. deal, it is clear that Ketchum and the government of Honduras have maintained a heavy focus on influencing U.S. media.
One document, signed in January by Nicole Mann, senior vice president and director of public and corporate affairs for Ketchum, cites “advice and counsel relating to communications activities, develop communications materials and facilitate relations with media organizations to create visibility.”
And a separate document states that, between June and November of 2015, Ketchum "conducted survey and in-depth interview research on perceptions of Honduras in the United States" and "conducted influencer outreach with Washington, D.C.-based think tanks regarding events with Honduran government officials." Curiously, the file also mentions that Ketchum “pitched media interviews on behalf of Honduran government officials to various U.S. outlets" and “proactively and reactively engaged with U.S. media regarding coverage of Honduras."
Who are these media outlets, and how is Ketchum influencing them? When AlterNet sought comment from Ketchum, the company’s spokesperson Jennifer Vargas simply replied, “We can confirm that we work with the Government of Honduras to provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations, third party outreach, research and monitoring in order to support the country's economic development and trade relations. We do not discuss the terms of our client contracts.”
Dan Beeton, international communications director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told AlterNet that this message is cause for further concern.
"The current Honduran government's economic priorities do not seem to put the Honduran people first. Rather, they focus on extractive development projects and ventures like the dams that Berta Caceres died fighting, and that are often opposed by local communities,” he said. “The Honduran government is pushing many more such projects under the 'Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity for the Northern Triangle,' which the Obama administration supports."
A History of Questionable Tactics
While Ketchum is providing little information about its paid activities, its past dealings are a good indication of the tactics it can be expected to employ.
Ketchum runs two front groups for the agrichemical industry, US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and GMO Answers, the latter of which was bankrolled by the Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta.
New York Times journalist Eric Lipton revealed last year that Ketchum previously enlisted academics in GMO propaganda efforts as part of a “GMO lobbying war,” including by drafting “expert” content for them. The P.R. firm has levied numerous other questionable tactics, including the recent targeting a 14-year-old Canadian GMO labeling activist, as well as the prominent blogger known as “Food Babe.”
There is evidence that the company committed espionage against food and environmental organizations as far back as 2000. And reporter Charles Campbell wrote in 1991 that Ketchum had devised a “Crisis Management Plan” which “laid out suggestions for Clorox just in case Greenpeace, the environmental action group, should launch a major campaign against the company's household bleach.”
The firm is famously secretive, even though it has represented some of the most powerful corporations and states in the world, including a 9-year deal with the Russian government that ended last year.
“One of the things that goes unnoticed about corporate power are the structures that make the exercise of corporate power possible,” Gary Ruskin, co-director of the watchdog organization U.S. Right to Know, told AlterNet. “Here we have a U.S. P.R. firm playing a key part in efforts to promote chemicals, GMOs and the chemical industries. And now they are doing everything they can to launder and rehabilitate the image of the government of Honduras amid atrocious violations.”