Reputation Laundering

Argentinian Journalist Jorge Lanata made the news last week with his report on a network of fake twitterers who were showing their support for the Argentinian government. The journalist presented a report on some 400 people with no real profiles and assured that “with fake twitterers, the government ends up creating public opinion; trends that influence the media. They make things up and it gives them an advantage “.
The news continued with Paul Capurro, an expert in new technologies, who stated that this kind of operation is commonly used in politics and in brand repositioning, but he felt that the power to create public opinion was relative.

One dimension of this phenomenon, which must be taken into account increasingly in the future, are attempts by dictatorial governments or governments with a history of serious human rights violations, to clear their reputation. Actions to this end were reported at the time by The Guardian (in the case of the governments of Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka), which revealed the astronomical amounts spent on these campaigns in advertising and public relations agencies.

Changing the reputation of a country, or as we will see in other posts of this series, of a brand or a company, is not easy. The democratization of access to information and the critical culture that social networks are fostering has made it more difficult to clean up the image of a country or a tyrant. This is not only true when the record that needs polishing is clearly tainted, but even when international society perceives a somewhat murky or contradictory situation.

However, several considerations should be made:

On the one hand, we must consider the impact, or the duration of the impact, of the news and its frequency in the media. While it is true that the media in general are able to almost instantaneously place atrocities and acts against human rights in the public spotlight, its effect on the audience does not last for more than 48-72 hours. This brief but direct effect of news is just what public relations agencies aim to counteract with intensive and ongoing campaigns.

Moreover, and in line with the above, there is also the responsibility of media in what I would call the preventive coverage of these news stories and conflicts. We have to keep in mind that the direct impact of news of human rights violations, corruption, or a dictator is limited by the fact that most violent conflicts or situations of injustice are not adequately covered, but remain in the shadows. There are forgotten conflicts and countries in many regions. Media coverage depends on many factors: its relevance to national interest, geographical proximity, the cost, the impact of the news compared to other serious but less dramatic stories, or just the cycles of media attention. Some studies have shown that the media can pressure governments to change their priorities and channel funds to humanitarian or political emergencies … funding that falls off when media attention turns away. But along with the preventive aspect, there is also the responsibility of the media in maintaining the proper balance between the big scoops and the conflicts and problems that are not as novel or are deeply entrenched.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most complex issue, one should also consider what is the real impact of such advertising and propaganda campaigns in economic, social and reputational terms. In many cases, the idea is to divert the media’s attention to other stories, but the effect may be counterproductive. A relatively recent example can be found in the Uzbek dictator’s daughter who launched an aggressive public relations campaign including music concerts –allegedly for charity-, exhibition football matches, or fashion shows. Suddenly her sponsors have withdrawn their support and she has been ostracized after allegations, by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, of serious human rights violations and forced child labor in cotton plantations. Sponsors and partners also have seen their reputations damaged.

To change how things work and to minimize the possible influence of these image improvement campaigns, we must consider several aspects that need to be changed.

On one side are the interests and economic benefits for the country whose image is being cleaned up and, on the other, the interests of those who receive the information. From an economic standpoint, regardless of the economic interests that each State may have in the offending country, most international investors do not take into account human rights violations and ecological disasters when making a decision. We are thus consenting to these illegal actions that are not considered by international traders. The Country Risk indicators that are used to assess countries must provide visibility for all kinds of human rights violations and not just highlight mere political instability.

At a more concrete level, economic interests are usually behind these types of image campaigns. Such was the case of the UNESCO in 2008, which agreed to accept funding from Teodoro Obiang, who was represented by the U.S. firm Qorvis, to fund a prize for science research that would bear his name, the Obiang Prize. Recently, the UNESCO Executive Board has decided to keep the prize but change both the name, now called “UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences”, and the funding source, the three million dollars will come from the country’s state treasury rather than from Obiang’s personal foundation. Latin American and African countries voted in favor of the award.

Reputation management.
There are legal and illegal ways to improve a reputation, and transparency and honesty should be key in any strategy. Otherwise, the agency itself could see its own reputation damaged in the long run.
Pressure campaigns to change negative entries in Wikipedia, inventing fictitious persons or groups to create positive comments about a person or country, etc. are examples of this. One controversial case was that of “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” which used the firm Hill and Knowlton. Apparently this group, which gave false testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, was funded by the Kuwaiti government to convince the U.S. to start the Gulf War in 1992.

But there are legal limits to this type of behavior. On the one hand, there are established codes of conduct by which companies should reject the representation of clients involved in activities that are illegal, unethical or contrary to professional practice. Many codes of ethics exist. Some are global, such as the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, The International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Code of Athens, The European Public Relations Confederation, and some are national, such as the Public Relations Institute of Australia, Public Relations Society of America, the Public Relations Consultants Association’s (PRCA) Voluntary Code of Conduct for the PR industry, etc. Most agencies have signed a code of this kind, although it is true that some agencies that have contracts with conflictive governments have not.

Furthermore, this is also a question of transparency. Information should be provided regarding the source of the funds used for activities sponsored by these governments (as in the case of the UNESCO prize), or the publication of contracts and/or contractors rejected by agencies, and this should be established in the codes of conduct. Agencies such as Portland PR and Hill & Knowlton are examples of this, as they rejected a multimillion dollar contract with Kazakhstan.

Finally, the most powerful and complicated path is to hold organizations liable for their actions if they mask or instigate such acts. Recourse to legal action depends on the type of event promoted by the agency. We cannot give equal treatment to creating fictitious profiles, such as the example at the beginning of this article, false testimony in the case of Kuwait, or advocacy of folklore and the arts, when the aim is to divert attention away from the real situation of a country.

To be continued …

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