Monday 5 December 2011

Wanted: A PR Transparency Project

Activists and NGOs facing authoritarian regimes are the ultimate underdogs. With very limited resources and access to power, they confront authorities who not only act against them with impunity but also a juggernaut of media that puts their cause at an extreme disadvantage. Repressive governments dominate or outright control national newspapers and broadcast outlets, and they hire big public relations and reputation management firms abroad to help get their messages across in international media, where local activists can rarely be heard.

A vast ecosystem of independent organisations has evolved to address many of these issues and to some extent even up the sides in the endless battle between oppressors and oppressed. National and international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch not only highlight general conditions populations suffer but also support individual human rights defenders and other activists when their work gets them into trouble with the authorities. Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders concentrate on press freedoms and notable abuses and outrages against individual journalists and outlets in these countries, providing perhaps some relief within national media environments.

However, for the most part, no group systematically addresses that third aspect of the problem as a core issue: the role of international public relations firms in providing support for authoritarian regimes abroad. Sure, some international NGOs may criticise them on a specific campaign from time to time -- such as a UK protest by several groups earlier this year as part of a Belarus campaign -- but exposing the role of PR agencies is rarely if ever the central purpose, and even when it is, it is often only after a serendipitous revelation of information about their work for a regime rather than the result of dedicated research they have purposefully engaged in. Fair enough, of course, as these groups have all got more than plenty to do with their core missions as it is.

Still, it is a tremendous shame that the issue is not addressed more systematically. When you understand the time and effort international activists and NGOs put in to publicise their worthwhile cases and causes, it is more than troubling to see those campaigns undermined by Western PR firms, fuelled by regime money and often masked by secret deals. It is time to shed more light on this area.