Without PR Firms, Could Mideast Dictators Remain in Power?

Millions spent to cover up mass brutality.

Certain Arab rulers of despotic nations are masters of propaganda – spending time on style over substance as working with media and PR agencies allows them the strength (and cover) to remain in power. These brutal dictators kill, oppress and ignore civil rights – but they spend millions charming (and spinning) the media while utilizing many of the world’s leading PR firms to assist them in their despotic ways. The media and public relations communities should examine their roles as accomplices to this wanton violence.

This fall, there are two specific nations who are utilizing significant public relations operations to benefit their dictatorships. At www.bahrainwatch.org one learns that the government of Bahrain has spent $32 million on US and UK PR agencies since the start of protests in Bahrain in February 2011. During that time period, at least 60 people have been killed by government security forces, and the government is regularly described as one of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Owning 5WPR, a leading PR firm, I know first-hand that firms like Bell Pottinger, Hill & Knowlton & Qorvis, who are working for Bahrain, have significant impact upon media coverage and are effective. A good crisis PR agency can shape what media reports, and how.  There’s a reason they get the big bucks. This week, CNN is under criticism for refusing to air a documentary, "iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring," which it had commissioned and produced that featured footage of government forces shooting unarmed protesters.

Meanwhile, largely unreported, police brutality continues, as police fired tear gas and stun grenades at dozens of anti-government protesters who defied a ban on unauthorized demonstrations. $32 million spent in the last 18 months on public relations is a huge amount, sure to influence media coverage, and hence world opinion.

Syria is another nation which has spent heavily while killing its citizens – and the story isn’t headline news as it should be daily. As has been previously reported, NY PR firm Brown Lloyd James has worked with Syria extensively to help Assad get away with murder (as they did with Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi.)

In the past few weeks, Assad has escalated military operations - shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, unleashing militias (5000 Syrians were killed in August alone), and not insignificantly he has also stepped up public relations efforts. Assad invited UK Journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent to Syria, arranged an interview with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, allowed him to embed within Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syrian jihadists. Fisk visited prisons (where he portrayed the intelligence officers at one of Syria’s most notorious military prison as friendly), and one of the prisoners he interviewed told Fisk he was fine. Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV last week, insisting ''Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis.''

Even Assad realizes he needs to spin media – and while there is no consensus on the UN Security Council regarding Syria, and America doesn’t need a new conflict in the Middle East, Assad must believe public relations can help him hang onto power in Syria.

It has served his regime well until now - In February 2011, a glowing profile in Vogue Magazine described Asma al-Assad, Syria’s First Lady, as “glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

Frankly, both Bahrain and Syria’s leaders are resourceful – they murder, oppress, and spin the media utilizing public relations as part of their force to stay in power.

While Bahrain spends a huge amount of $32 million dollars on public relations in a short period of time, Syria’s Assad has a long history of understanding publicity.  While Arab dictators murder with impunity, public relations firms should be ashamed for assisting them to remain in power.

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