Who wants to help improve the image of an oppressive government?


The deceit at the core of public relations is contained in the name.

Public Relations, or PR — it has a Stalinist blandness, as though it might perform the most benign, necessary, and mundane of functions. One might imagine that someone in public relations dealt with issues like making sure the trains run on time.

But if its name was more befitting of the function, then PR should be called mind twisting. It’s all about obscuring reality and shaping perceptions so that those perceptions meet the interests of the PR client, irrespective of the interests of the public.

The autocratic and brutal rulers of Bahrain have called out for the services of the best mind twisters in the business and bids have been made by companies that clearly have few concerns about tarnishing their own images. Why would they? After all, most PR outfits have less public visibility than intelligence agencies.

Bahrain Watch is calling attention to six major American and British PR firms that are hoping to win a new contract with the Bahrain government, those being, Bell Pottinger, Hill & Knowlton, Weber Shandwick, Portland Communications, Citigate Dewe Rogerson, and Consulum.

These aren’t household names and neither are the people who run them — but they should be, because these are people who not only advise Middle Eastern autocrats but just as often they counsel the leaders of Western governments.

Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger, was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher during three general election campaigns. Jack Martin, chairman and CEO of Hill Knowlton, was a senior advisor to the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Senate Democratic Committee. Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick, was a senior aide to U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Tim Allan, founder of Portland Communications, was a key media adviser to Tony Blair and served as deputy press secretary in Number 10, Downing Street.

With advisers like these, it’s small wonder we have such little confidence in our own democratic leaders. If those who have perfected the art of lubricating the wheels of government in Washington and London, can just as easily offer their services to a government that “has received widespread condemnation from international human rights bodies for human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture, mass political sackings and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and association,” what does this say about the condition of contemporary Western governance?

Everyone knows our political system is rotten, but far too little attention is given to the individuals who, outside the media spotlight, have played such an instrumental role in turning democracy itself into the practice of public relations.

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