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.

I believe there is a very worthwhile niche for a new organisation to directly and indirectly expose PR companies working for dictatorships to boost their image and legitimacy in Europe, the US and elsewhere, such as the BRIC countries and South Africa. Just as we have seen greater transparency and accountability in the international extractive industries and financial sectors in recent years, so too must international public relations follow.

The new iNGO would not need to be very big. It would take a small team of experienced investigative reporters who could conduct research and discover who is working for whom, paired with a small team of creatives with contacts to work on the best ways to shed light on those efforts. An open, online resource listing the “who and for whom” would be the core deliverable in all likelihood, but other products could follow from that as well. Perhaps this organisation would then get involved in campaigns related to these revelations, or perhaps it would leave that to other groups. In any case, the new organisation would no doubt also require solid legal advice and support all around.

A key aspect of such a project would be the need to work with a wide variety of different contacts and existing actors: journalists, NGOs, government sources and others. Getting support and cooperation would be pretty easy in many instances, as so many of these actors are already uncomfortable with the darker corners of the PR world, and they would be happy to see more light shed on them. Some in the PR business itself might be relieved to see greater transparency develop in their industry and ultimately assist such an iNGO in one day developing industry standards and a level playing field for all those taking on government clients. Maybe there is even hope for a process that does for the PR world what the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has done for its sector, bringing together countries, companies and civil society organisations.

Having discussed the need for greater transparency with a number of such actors in various fields already, I get a clear sense there would be many open doors to push on from the very outset. Some sources may be hesitant to come forward at first, naturally, and it would perhaps be useful to set up systems for anonymous tip-offs.

Of course, there would be a number of potential pitfalls to be mindful of. One key issue, perhaps one that might even delay the start of the public exposure side of the operation (though not the research side), would be the need for libel reform in England. There is, thankfully, already a strong movement working on just that, and things are progressing in a generally positive direction. Still, given how unbalanced the law currently is in favour of anyone claiming defamation and given the forum shopping that goes on around the world, the need for solid legal support for such a project cannot be underestimated.

After many years of watching how authoritarian regimes purchase acceptance and credibility -- or at least spread doubt -- abroad using international PR firms, I am convinced greater transparency and accountability are in order. It is frustrating to see decent and well-intentioned international NGO communications efforts thwarted by deeper-pocketed regimes who buy their way into newspaper pages and onto to broadcast media thanks to PR firms who will not even reveal publicly that these regimes are their clients.

A transparency and accountability project like the one suggested would add a potential cost for big PR firms to consider when they look at taking on dictator clients in future. It would be a far stronger disincentive than the internal, self-regulation guidelines some firms have now. Since these companies are all about public reputation -- their own as well as that of their other clients -- such efforts have a very good chance of succeeding.

When future potential clients start wondering whether they should engage a company that is the centre of negative attention because of its work for a notoriously abusive government, the PR firms will have to alter their calculations. It is possible to create an international environment in which PR deals with authoritarian regimes are simply so toxic that the big PR firms will refuse to touch the worst dictators in future.

This new project would thus help address the imbalance of competition for public space in media internationally, and give activist and NGO messages a freer, less obstructed airing.

A small team as described above has a promising potential for impact relative to cost. It would draw considerable attention and sympathy from the very start, and the effects on international relations and the societies themselves would be observable and significant. A quick, back-of-envelope calculation would suggest it could all be done on an annual budget less than the value of a single PR-dictatorship contract.

These, then, are the basic outlines of this idea for a new iNGO. I’d love to hear what others think. Could it be done? Would it work?

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