The PR Art of Selling Authoritarian Regimes?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/29/2011 12:03:00 AM
Here we go again with the alleged dark arts of the marketing trade. Flipping through the London dailies, there's apparently a new cause celebre here in Britain. And no, I'm not talking about fish pedicures--that's so 2010, dahling. As a business major from days long gone, I think of marketing concepts as general-purpose tools of persuasion whose principles can be applied in many realms--selling products, services, candidates, or even countries. (Remember the notion of "nation branding.") As you will read, it turns out that among the most avid users of advertising and public relations services here in Blighty are authoritarian regimes from the Middle East and elsewhere. For the benefit of IPE Zone's international readers, the graphic to the right is supposedly illustrative of these activities--Persil is a major brand of detergent sold by Unilever here in the UK.

On one hand, you can say that it's a perfectly legitimate enterprise. For instance, any number of them are keen on branding themselves as financial services and tourist destinations in that part of the world. Bahrain has (had?) seats to fill for its F1 race, for instance, On the other hand, you have articles like what follows that attribute more sinister motives to these activities in attempting to conceal blood on their hands while suppressing dissent. Reputation laundering, they call it. Which way you see it is up to you. From the Evening Standard:
London's public relations industry has got a PR problem. Top firms such as Bell Pottinger, Brown Lloyd James, Portland and Grayling are coming under intense scrutiny because of their work for foreign governments or in regimes of dubious repute. The catalyst has been the Arab uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia, which have raised questions about the ethics of these PR firms. Critics claim that London has turned into the global capital of reputation laundering.

Bell Pottinger, run by Margaret Thatcher's former image adviser Lord Bell, has already faced protests outside its High Holborn office because of its work for Bahrain. But it is not just spin doctors working in the Middle East that are being accused of "propping up" unplesasant regimes. Tonight, opponents of the authoritarian regime in Belarus are demonstrating outside the Victoria HQ of Grayling because the PR firm has opened an office in the former Soviet republic. Actor Jude Law and playwright Sir Tom Stoppard are backing the protesters, who are then marching to the House of Commons to hear the two theatre stars speak at a rally, organised by Index on Censorship and the Free Theatre of Belarus.

Tory donor Lord Chadlington, boss of Grayling's parent company Huntsworth, is adamant that his firm is not an "apologist" for Belarus and does not work for any foreign government. Grayling's office in Minsk is just to help international clients keen to invest and explore privatisation opportunities. But Mike Harris, public affairs manager of Index on Censorship, says: "We are targeting Grayling because it is currently working in getting inward investment in Europe's last dictatorship and it is the only major PR firm in Belarus."

For Index on Censorship and other critics, there is a wider point about PR firms in dubious regimes. "They are not just the messenger," says Harris. "They try to normalise these regimes with nice pieces in the papers about holidays in these places and business features on investment. They are instrumental in keeping the economy of these regimes going."

If there is one London firm synonymous with this international spin it is Bell Pottinger - even though, as Britain's biggest PR agency, it also represents many uncontroversial UK household brands. Recent clients have included the Egyptian Ministry of Information, the Economic Development Board of Bahrain and the governments of Belarus and Sri Lanka, and it has also worked in Yemen.
I am of two minds about these practices. Positively, you can say that helping authoritarian regimes solicit business is welcome insofar as their citizens can benefit from the arrival of commercial opportunities. Negatively, you can say that these firms are indirectly contributing to inflows which help solidify these regimes' financial stature.

Unless you have a Bushian-Manichaean world view--or an intractable aversion to all things Libyan, for that matter--there are no easy answers.