As the owner of 5WPR, one of the 25 largest PR Firms in America, I am never amazed at the inquiries which we receive. Having worked for Lebanese (anti-Syrian) interests, the Moroccan Tourism Ministry, Iraqex, (American interests in Iraq), and other Middle Eastern concerns, over the past few months, we have received discrete communiques from official and unofficial government liaisons who are seeking to manage, influence (and manipulate) media coverage.
This increased volume of confidential inquiries to my firm has prompted me to wonder which public relations firms have accepted offers to work for Anti-Western interests, making millions. As radical Islam spreads throughout the Middle East, it wouldn’t shock me if one of my peers or competitors is working with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he arrives in New York this weekend to an avalanche of press coverage. Ahmadinejad has shown that he understands the power of the press, and my experience tells me that it would be surprising for him to have that level of media understanding without advisors. I also wonder who is assisting Syrian President Assad now, as he clings to power in the bloodiest battle the world has seen in years.
In America, all public relations entities that represent foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities in a “political or quasi-political capacity” are required to disclose their clients due to FARA Laws (Foreign Agent Registration Act). But if the firm answers to a 3rd party, or a non-government entity is paying the bills, the laws are less clear. Many PR firms are multi-national corporations who skirt disclosure issues via International contracts – and throughout Europe there are no regulations for PR firms.
In time, we will discover that there are many anti-Western interests who are using PR agencies during these trying times. Many of the leaders of political Islam, from the government of Egypt which is now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, to Syria, Libya (where the American Ambassador was recently killed), and Bahrain are undoubtedly managing media coverage.
Public Relations firms draft speeches, prepare leaders for interviews, draft and place articles in newspapers and introduce journalists to members of government. PR firms work to try and prevent negative stories from running (or soften them if they do.) Whether utilizing lawyers to apply pressure, pulling favors, or other tactics, PR agencies make a difference – and Arab oil money can buy a lot.
There are many firms who should answer for what they are doing to harm Western interests. Bell Pottinger who has worked for Bahrain (a nation which has spent $32 million on US and UK PR agencies since February 2011), Harbour Group, a Washington D.C. based firm working with the new Libyan government, Patton Boggs, which previously worked for Gaddafi, and recruited prominent American academics to praise the Libyan government are prime suspects. International PR firm Brown Lloyd James worked for Assad and Gaddafi in the past – and they, like the other cast of questionable characters won’t comment on their current clients.
The PR industry is a small, tight knit industry and it isn’t easy for me to write about this sensitive issue. Dictators and Middle Eastern governments pay well – but sleeping well at night and doing the right thing should be more important to leaders of the public relations industry.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a Top 25 US PR Agency.