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World: What Is Public Relations? Part 2

  • Tony Wesolowsky



Public relations is a widely known but poorly understood business. Most P.R. work is done behind the scenes, and intersects with the related fields of lobbying and government propaganda. In part two of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky looks at the business' uses and abuses -- including some of its most notorious cases.

Prague, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As Iraqi troops were streaming into Kuwait in 1990, in Washington a young Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah stepped before a panel of U.S. congressmen and told a terrifying story. She recounted how Iraqi soldiers had stormed into a Kuwaiti hospital. Brandishing guns, she said, the soldiers ripped babies from incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor.

The girl's testimony shocked the U.S. public. After listening to Nayirah, many Americans who had wavered over whether the U.S. should commit troops to the Gulf were convinced that it should. There was only one problem: Most of Nayirah's tale was untrue.

A Kuwaiti government front group [that is, set up by the government but pretending to be private] called Citizens for a Free Kuwait had hired the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to generate support for U.S. intervention in the Gulf. Nayirah became part of that plan. The firm played a key role in writing Nayirah's statement and helping her practice delivering it. Hill and Knowlton also videotaped her tearful testimony and distributed it to 700 television stations nationwide.

After the Gulf War, much of the deception gradually leaked out. Sheldon Rampton, of the U.S.-based public relations monitoring group P.R. Watch, says the girl was not what she had pretended to be:

"It turns out, after the fact, that this [testimony] was a complete lie, and, in fact, Nayirah -- her true identity -- she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Not only was her family not still in Kuwait, her father was right there in the room listening as she gave her testimony."

Rampton says that in the case of Nayirah, Hill and Knowlton employed an old public relations tactic.

"One of the most classic P.R. techniques used over and over again is what they call the 'third party' technique. The third party technique means, find a third party which does not appear to be related to the client and put your words in someone else's mouth."

Hill and Knowlton's tactics were roundly condemned, even within the P.R. community itself. But their campaign on behalf of Kuwait -- based essentially on false testimony by Nayirah -- was hardly the first of its kind for the P.R. business.

The man who invented public relations as it is known today, Edward Bernays, played an important role in whipping up U.S. fear of Communist aggression in Guatemala in the 1950s. At the time, the Guatemelan government had begun to redistribute land, some of which belonged to the U.S. company United Fruit. The company employed Bernays to lobby [that is, influence the government] on its behalf.

United Fruit wanted the Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz Gutman deposed. Bernays set to work contacting journalists at leading newspapers like The New York Times, offering information bits and contacts to report the so-called "Communist threat" looming in Guatemala. Soon, articles appeared in the nation's top dailies warning of what was going on in this remote Central American state.

Policymakers in Washington also heard the message, with which many of them agreed. In 1953 and 1954, CIA air strikes helped put President Jacobo Arbenz Gutman out of power, and a military junta in. Many observers now say that Bernays' campaign to paint Guatemala red was key in spurring Washington to act.

Today, a public relations battle is looming over genetically altered food. Big multinational companies like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midlands are finding it difficult to convince a skeptical public that genetically modified food is safe. In 1998, the public relations firm Burson Marsteller created EuropaBio, a corporate lobbying group representing 40 transnational companies that have financial stakes in the bio-engineering business.

Paul Muys, EuropaBio's communication manager, says the group is playing a useful role bringing scientifically backed information to the public, and to decision-makers at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

"Our kind of activity is necessary, [for] instance, for the members of the European Parliament because they need information -- not only from us, of course, it's their full right to get information [from] wherever they can find it and make their own judgement afterwards. And we also need the political decision-makers to make clear what our needs are, and what are the needs for this industry to prosper."

The Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory monitors lobbying and public relations organizations in Europe. Adam Ma'anit, a researcher at the observatory, says lobbying groups like EuropaBio enjoy the kind of access to policymakers that non-governmental organizations can only dream about:

"The level of influence that EuropaBio has, compared to an environmental group and the kind of access that EuropaBio has to the [EU's European] Commission, institutions, etcetera -- there is a great imbalance between their level of influence and the kind of influence that Greenpeace or the WWF [World Wildlife Fund] or any other kind of environmental group would have."

One tactic used by the bio-engineering industry to win over skeptics is to try to demonstrate that the public at large supports their products. But at a December rally in Washington, Burson Marsteller may have taken things too far. As the New York Times reported, Burson Marsteller actually paid about 100 members of a Baptist church to attend a pro-biotechnology rally. Monsanto -- which had hired Burson Marsteller to handle the campaign -- said it was shocked by the action, which it called "abhorrent."

In Central and Eastern Europe, the public relations business is still developing. But in the few cases available, it is clear the industry is using techniques similar to those perfected in the West.

In the Czech Republic, for example, the Canadian TVX gold-mining company four years ago faced strong public and local government operation to its gold mining operations in the southern Czech city of Kasperske Hory. The town sits on the cusp of one of the country's most prized natural reserves, the Sumava National Park. According to the environmental group Friends of the Earth, TVX Gold had previously been cited for violating environmental regulations on several occasions. Local Czech authorities had threatened to revoke the company's exploration license.

But in 1996, TVX hired Burson Marsteller. According to Vojta Kotecky of Friends of the Earth, Burson Marsteller launched a campaign to discredit a critical study of environmental impact, offered the community financial support, and tried to discredit the town mayor, who had led the opposition against the Canadian mining company.

Kotecky says part of the Burson Marsteller campaign played on a Czech bias against Germans.

"[They] sort of played the German card, saying that people opposed to the project -- in particular the mayor -- are somehow linked to Germany."

Burson Marsteller refused RFE/RL's requests to discuss the case.

Despite the company's campaign, opponents of the project -- including the mayor --later won in local elections. Moreover, six months ago, the Czech Environmental Ministry revoked TVX's mining license. Kotecky hailed it as a huge victory -- not so much over the mining company, but rather over Burson-Marsteller.

The TVX Gold experience in the Czech Republic demonstrates two things: One, foreign corporations operating in Central Europe are increasingly turning to high-powered public relations firm for help. And two, money is not the only factor that determines whose version of the truth will prevail.

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