Lots of people and organisations make money out of war. But I learnt this week of a comparatively new arrival on the scene that is really cashing in: the public relations industry.
PR firms from the USA and Europe have been active in the Caucasus since the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia degenerated into open warfare a year ago. But few realised the extent of their operations or how sophisticated they have become.
These PR firms pump out none of the crude propaganda of yesteryear. They employ former advertising men, ex-politicians and journalists to put across a subtle but convincing case for their clients. Even Moscow has joined the trend.
It has hired Ketchum, a New York agency which has some 50 people working on the account. Some of the work is subcontracted to Portland which is run by Tim Allan, a former spin doctor for No.10 Downing Street, and the BBC’s former Moscow correspondent, Angus Roxborough. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have retained Saylor Company which is run by a former Los Angeles Times senior editor, Mark Saylor. Meanwhile Georgia has used a Belgian agency, Aspect, run by a British expatriate, James Hunt, but also has an arrangement with a London firm called Project Associates. David Cracknell, a former political editor of the Sunday Times, works on the account.
Exactly how much these firms are paid is a commercial secret but various figures are bandied around. Mark Saylor bills his time at US$550 an hour. Georgia paid US PR firm Public Strategies US$50,000 a month. The Guardian says that the Russians have paid Ketchum and its affiliate, The Washington Group, at least US$14 million in the past three years, plus a further US$5 million to Gavin Anderson, the London financial PR firm, for representing the state gas giant, Gazprom.
All this might appear not to matter much but it raises important questions about truth and how wars are reported. A Kremlin spokesman said at the time of the conflict between Russian and Georgia, "We are like schoolchildren when it comes to using the media. But we are learning."
He was reflecting on the fact that Georgia won the PR battle last year by portraying itself as a plucky pro-Western country struggling against an imperialist Russia. Journalists were bombarded with emails and text messages on what were claimed to be the latest Russian atrocities — irrespective of the facts.
The Guardian‘s media columnist Peter Wilby says, "The brief war in the Caucasus was a classic example of the situation outlined in Nick Davies‘s book Flat Earth News. Most newspapers didn’t have a clue what was going on and lacked sufficient resources to find out. So skilfully presented PR was at a premium."
Journalist David Teather has analysed the PR companies’ approach. "The Georgians, who rely on American and European aid and support, clearly have most to gain from courting public opinion in the West. Georgia wins when it is presented as Russia versus Georgia. The approach is to have [the Georgian leader]Saakashvili and Putin in the same sentence as much as possible. How Putin hates him, wants to hang him by the balls. It’s PR 101. Good versus bad. Small versus big. Freedom-loving country against bully Russia. Georgia is presented as a democratic white knight and a way to check Russia."
But if the media has not the resources to find out the truth for itself, and journalists are bombarded by skilfully presented PR handouts, how is this going to affect the reporting of war? I blame, in part, those journalists who have taken what an old reporter friend of mine calls "the Walk of Shame" and abandoned their honourable craft for the better-paid job of public relations. In their new careers it is not a requirement of the job that they believe in the story their client wants to project. They are merely guns for hire to the highest bidder.
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