Mark Borkowski on Public Relations

Does the mighty BP really find proper journalism so threatening?
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The Independent Online

One thing that makes huge corporations especially cross is when the media advisers they assume will help protect them from bad publicity fail to exercise proper PR housekeeping and end up landing them in sheep dip.

One thing that makes huge corporations especially cross is when the media advisers they assume will help protect them from bad publicity fail to exercise proper PR housekeeping and end up landing them in sheep dip.

Step forward the WPP media buying company MindShare, who recently issued a memo to the effect that BP wished to follow Morgan Stanley's lead in expecting newspaper and magazine publishers not to run any editorial about their sector, good or bad, without a) informing them, and b) agreeing to pull any BP ads that might be running. This immediately painted BP as paranoid and run by control freaks instead of a modern, forward-looking corporation.

What's really happening here is that the enormous muscle BP wields can't help but show itself once in the spotlight. Money and power always go hand in hand, and in the USA alone BP spends $95.5m (£53m) a year on buying space to run advertising, $18m of which goes to the magazine industry and $2.1m to newspapers.

The very presence of such a huge pair of breast implants threatening anything is enough to send publishers into a panic, but it's in the nature of media buying companies such as MindShare to take the line of least resistance and encourage a bland, trouble-free world in which proper journalism is considered an embarrassment and a threat.

It's uncomfortable enough to face the fact that BP and a few other corporations pay the bills and salaries of great swathes of the advertising and PR industries. It doesn't take much to realise that what BP wants, BP is likely to get, one way or another.

SO THE London office of the PR giant Hill & Knowlton has signed a £400,000 contract with the government of Uganda "to improve Uganda's stained reputation as a human-rights abuser and democracy laggard". You can't fault the transparency in the statement, but if that's going to be a mountain to climb, there's more gold in them thar hills.

If Uganda is doing this, it confirms the unpalatable fact that global PR companies must be grafting away for questionable regimes all over the world. Every country with skeletons in the cupboard is probably paying fat fees to some corporate PR group. At least we independents can afford to stick to our principles when offered work that's too unpleasant to stomach, unlike the mighty communications groups, caught between the rock of overheads and the hard place of shareholder expectations.

Hill & Knowlton, let me remind you, were the American PR group responsible for orchestrating the most extraordinarily effective campaign from the week in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and annexed its oil fields. H&K used its experience to set up the vehicle "Citizens for a Free Kuwait" as what was dubbed a "human rights organisation" into which the ruling al-Sabah family poured a total of $11.9m (over $10m went to H&K in fees) in their bid to secure an Allied invasion to return their oil fields to them, something that might well not have happened if the world's press had chosen to focus on Kuwait's oppressively un-democratic regime. The most notorious element of the campaign was the false claim made at a so-called "Human Rights Caucus" on Capitol Hill that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and left tiny babies to die. The testimony was delivered by a teenage girl name Nayirah who wept as she told the tale.

What was not revealed was that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. Her father was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the US, who sat listening in the hearing room during her testimony. The caucus also failed to reveal that H&K's vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had spoken with Nariyah ahead of her testimony. Fitz-Pegado denied she had coached the girl, saying she was merely determining the credibility of her account. However, even the Kuwaitis' own inquiry failed to substantiate the claims. Still, the story helped to fire the US nation to devastating effect, with no suggestion that it was more fictitious than the soap operas it interrupted. I'll be interested to see how they go with the cuddly Uganda government account.

We are all cheated by fake news

The non-profit Center for Media and Democracy ( www.prwatch.org), a group of PR watchers in the US, is rightly obsessed by the trend across the pond of the creation of fake news. Anyone with sufficient funds can get in on the act.

When Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ came out last year, the promotional package included a CD featuring the star, Jim Caviezel, answering questions. These were helpfully provided on a sheet of paper for the local reporter to voice, and then edit in, to create a wholly fake interview. The transcript would say: "Hi, Jim, how are you?" and on the CD Jim would say: "I'm fine. It's good to be here," giving the impression that dear Jim had travelled all the way to Moosejaw, Montana or wherever, purely to give an exclusive interview to the radio station's "movie critic".

Such challenges to the integrity of the media must be widely disseminated so everyone knows the score. In the US, a campaign called No Fake News! is gaining momentum, while here in the UK, New Labour's manipulation of the news during the general election amounted to an outright betrayal. We all hate to be cheated, and I find the idea sad that those who inhabit the newsrooms of the nation will end up as spineless, unquestioning pawns, spending their days as little more than typists and their nights processing data received from a paparazzo's mobile phone. Fake news is one import from the USA we can do without.

Mark Wnek is away

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