The UK PR industry generates roughly £7.5 billion per year. If you work in media, it might feel like a good chunk of that comes via companies blasting your inbox with products that literally no one could ever want. But let’s be rational about this: there’s a lot more to be made by working for heavy hitters than trying to flog iridescent bean bags to a music reviews website.
Helped by a lack of interference from the government, and with no regulation standing in their way, British PR firms are doing their bit to suppress the evils of foreign dictatorships, and making a decent sum in the process. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course – regimes have been employing spin doctors for decades whenever they need a dodgy human rights violation smoothed over. But thanks to the internet, there are increasingly more ways in which they can soften whatever blow it is that needs softening.
I called Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch – an organisation that keeps an eye on the PR industry – to get an update on the current situation.
VICE: Hi Tamasin. So what reasons do these dictatorships have to employ PR firms, besides the obvious?
Tamasin Cave: All governments worry about their reputations. So it follows that the governments that regularly violate human rights, stamp down on protests or lock up journalists will invest heavily in public relations. To a government, a poor image can jeopardise investment, trade and their standing with other governments around the world. Countries can face sanctions, or already have sanctions against them that they want lifted.
So, increasingly, governments look to PRs and lobbyists to give their image a scrub. What it is, is reputation laundering. What they are buying is a good image in political centres like Brussels and Washington, in the international and financial media and with investors. Governments and dictators will look overseas for this type of expertise, and London has become the place to go for it. This is partly due to the sophisticated nature of our PR industry, but also you have this secrecy in London that you don’t have to the same extent in, say, the US. In the States, there are regulations that are supposed to govern this type of work. Lobbying firms working in the US for foreign governments are required to register their activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). There is no equivalent in the UK.
Okay, but how exactly do these PRs manage to spin a story about human rights violations, for example, or press censorship?
It's the PR’s job to charm and cajole journalists and commentators into promoting a positive message about a country. Some PRs have enormous power in the UK media, with many journalists dependent on them for information. PRs are often the gatekeepers to information. If a journalist pisses one of them off with a story, they may find their job becomes all but impossible.
The more shadowy side of the industry involves preventing people from reading bad things about you. It's about suppressing information. This is a big part of what PRs do. So, for instance, they manipulate the online space to make finding critical content all but impossible. This is done by driving negative content down the Google rankings, relying on the fact that few of us regularly click beyond the first page of results. They create new positive content that fools the search engines into pushing the "dummy" content above the negative, hiding the articles they don't want you to read.
One firm contracted by the Bahraini government, for example, has been accused of creating favourable blogs and websites, and pushing out a stream of "good news" press releases for this purpose. The purpose is to bury the bad news under a pile of propaganda.
Sneaky. So say a dictator is in the headlines for something they'd rather not be – what's the first thing a PR company would do?
According to PRs, the first step of "crisis management" – as they call this type of work – is to find out what people are saying about the client. Firms have these mass surveillance systems that track everything from social media to the mainstream press. Bad mouth the client in 140 characters and chances are they will find it. So it’s about finding out what's being said and by whom.
They will also help come up with the alternative narrative that the client wants to promote. Bell Pottinger, for example, was hired by Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus – dubbed the last dictator in Europe – to help the country secure the lifting of EU sanctions by promoting the message that “Belarus is embarking on a journey of democratic change”.
As well as the press, they also want to be talking to individual officials and politicians to make sure the message is carried with influential governments. For that, you need well-connected insiders: former government ministers, ex-ambassadors, retired senior civil servants. Bell Pottinger, for example, through employees such as Sir David Richmond – a former top-ranking Foreign Office official – was able to facilitate conversations between Belarus and governments in London, Brussels and Washington.
Robert Mugabe was considered a "step too far" by one UK PR company (Photo via)
How do these PRs justify what they're doing?
Russia has long employed London PR expertise. The agency, Portland Communications, is one of the most sought-after lobbying firms in the business at the moment. Their response is that they are helping the Russian government to professionalise the way it communicates with the world. That could mean, for example, teaching them that paying journalists off doesn’t wash overseas. Tim Allan – the founder, and a former advisor to Tony Blair – argues that it’s not an affront to democracy to help a government like Putin’s, which has previously been secretive, and lead them on a path to greater openness. There’s some legitimacy in that. But it doesn’t get away from the fact that they are working for a regime with an appalling human rights record.
Tim Bell – of Bell Pottinger – is another that argues his motivations are pro-democratic, helping dictators on the road to better governance. Bell, for example, advised Belarus’s Lukashenko of the measures he needed to adopt, like the release of political prisoners, if sanctions were to be lifted. But then Belarus reneged on its promises and the sanctions were reinstated. This is what democratic change by PR looks like.
Bell also believes that everyone has the right to present their case in the best possible light, and it's his job to enable clients to do that. Except Zimbabwe was considered a step too far for Bell Pottinger.
Tiananmen Square (Photo via)
Have there been any cases where PR firms have stepped in to cover up genocide or crimes against humanity?
There's a long list of PR and lobbying agencies that have worked for some very brutal regimes. One [American] firm, Burson-Marsteller, worked for the Nigerian government in the 60s to spin the crushing of the Biafran revolt; in the 70s it was hired to improve Argentina’s image after the military coup, during which period up to an estimated 30,000 people disappeared. The firm also worked with Indonesia when it was accused of genocide in East Timor. Another [American] firm, Hill & Knowlton, worked for the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and with Uganda to help blunt highly critical reports from human rights watchdogs. Weber Shandwick is another that accepted work from the Colombian government, whose human rights record is dreadful.
More recently, when Channel 4’s investigations into Sri Lankan war crimes were aired, [the show] was met by a seemingly coordinated counter-campaign that was critical of their reporting. Stories apparently appeared all over the world and all over the internet in a highly organised way.
Have you seen a rise in PR companies working for dictatorships?
It’s impossible to know in this country as it’s mostly below the radar, but it’s something that the industry is very touchy about at the moment. What we do know is that these are multi-million pound accounts. This is where the serious money is. Not long ago, a lobbyist with Portland claimed to be most proud of the work they have done for the Scouts Association. That’s nice, but it’s a fair bet that the money they get from the Russian government is what sustains the business, not the Scouts.
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