Truth is the first casualty in PR offensive

Tom O'Sullivan
Friday 21 August 1992 00:02 BST

THE war in Yugoslavia has been fought brutally on the ground. But it has also been fought with almost equal ferocity in the field of public relations. Each side's PR offensive operates on two levels: the domestic front and the international arena. On their home ground, no holds are barred: both sides use their own television, newspaper and news agencies to demonise the enemy.

As important, however, is the use of PR to appeal to the international community. Record of the United States Justice Department show the extent to which PR and lobbying firms have been used:

Serbia - Wise Communications in Washington received a total of dollars 304,000 (pounds 157,000) from the Serbian-owned oil company Jugopetrol. The firm worked indirectly for the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic.

In Britain, a group of Serbian businessmen hired Ian Greer Associates to organise a lobby of Westminster, communicate the Serbian message, and prevent economic sanctions by the European Community. Both companies stopped working on the separate accounts when the United Nations imposed worldwide sanctions in June.

Croatia - Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs was hired by the Republic of Croatia in August 1991 to lobby in Washington on its behalf. In the period to the end of 1991 it was paid dollars 46,000.

In Britain, Croatian representatives entered negotiations with lobbying firms, including Hill and Knowlton, offering pounds 500,000 for a campaign to win official recognition and raise the profile of Croatia.

Bosnia - Ruder Finn has also now been engaged by Bosnia-Herzegovina to raise its profile and lobby in Washington. The move is a reflection of the military pact drawn up between the two republics, despite Croatia's involvement in the carve-up of Bosnia.

Slovenia has established its own office in Washington to handle PR. It also employs Phyllis Kaminsky, an adviser to Ruder Finn, to handle some lobbying and PR work.

The roll-call of PR connections also includes Sir Tim Bell, who has advised the London-born Crown Prince Alexander, who last month staked his claim to the Yugoslav crown; Burson-Marsteller, which handled the media and political relations for the visit of the new Yugoslav Prime Minister, Milan Panic; and a host of Serbian information centres and individual lobbyists from both sides.

Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, head of the UN peace-keeping force in Bosnia up to the start of this month, alleges that both the Serbs and the Bosnians have shelled their own people in Sarajevo to gain an edge in the propaganda war. Both sides deny the allegation - while accusing the other of perpetrating such cynical attacks.

Jim Harff, president of Ruder Finn, insists: 'It is illogical to suggest that the Bosnians are bombing their own people - on a practical level they do not have the weapons.'

Then, there was the story of Serbian snipers being paid pounds 300 for each person they killed. It was alleged that children were popular targets for the killers because they were easier to hit.

The story reached the Western press via a New Zealand aid worker; his interview with a BBC radio journalist was broadcast on several radio programmes, including Newshour, the World Service flagship news programme. The nationality of the witness was crucial for 'third party endorsement', as he was not a Croat and could not be accused of bias - but he could not say he had actually witnessed such mercenary killings himself. The allegations first surfaced in the Croatian media, before gaining a worldwide audience.

The Tanjug news agency in Belgrade has just been forced to retract a story that Serbian forces had found the corpses of 1,000 Serbs 'butchered' in the northern Bosnian town of Odzak. The report originally surfaced in a newspaper published in a Serbian stronghold in Bosnia and was then picked up by Tanjug - it retracted the story on the grounds that there were no bodies.

The impact of stories such as these is difficult to assess. But they affect both the mood inside the country and international attitudes to the war, prepare international public opinion for military involvement and on occasions deliberately confuse the picture.

It is undeniable that the Serbian forces have been involved in acts of brutality. But so have the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims.

'Our role is to identify the aggressor and the victim which has been obscured by either a lack of information or Serbian propaganda,' says Mr Harff. 'The overriding objective was to develop a Croatian profile when competing against other foreign policy initiatives in Washington. Our main targets were the media, Capitol Hill and the Bush administration. There was a dearth of information among policy-makers on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

'There have been brutal incidents involving Croatian forces but they have been minuscule in comparison to Serbian actions.'

The Ruder Finn strategy has been to build a congressional and Senate coalition in the US in support of Croatia. The strategy has included mobilising the 2.5 million Croats in the US to lobby their own representatives in Congress.

Central to all this activity was equating the Serbian forces with Communism and the Croats with Western freedom and democracy.

Ruder Finn is employing a similar strategy in its work for Bosnia 'to help it fight the war and line up support and money', according to Mr Harff. The agency is also continuing its work to secure a UN resolution in support of military intervention in Bosnia for 'humanitarian reasons'.

Bill Wise, president of Wise Communications, is much more reticent about his company's indirect role in working for the Serbs. 'My contract was with Jugopetrol. Now if that work also served the interests of the Serbian government, then so be it.

'We arranged television interviews and placed articles in US publications for Slobodan Milosevic. Part of our role was to get some balance to the information coming out of Yugoslavia,' says Mr Wise, adding that the contract is now 'inoperative'.

The danger is that the propaganda has fuelled those atrocities by heightening hatreds and inventing untruths. The propaganda has resulted in the inevitable backlash from the other, aggrieved side as they commit an act of revenge.

The author is chief reporter of PR Week

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