PR firms at the service of human rights abusers


On 28 February 2015, the night that leading Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated, Vladimir Putin’s press spokesperson Dmitry Peskov deflected accusations that the Kremlin was involved by saying: “…in political terms he did not pose any threat to the current Russian leadership or Vladimir Putin. If we compare popularity levels, Putin’s and the government’s ratings and so on, in general Boris Nemtsov was just a little bit more than an average citizen.”

With the murder of Nemtsov and the worsening conflict in Ukraine, Russia is taking a dangerously authoritarian turn.

Under these circumstances, the Western spin doctors – sister public relations (PR) firms, Ketchum in Washington DC and GPlus in Brussels, both of the Omnicom Group – contracted to work with Peskov and the Kremlin media team are in an increasingly untenable position.

Yet they continue to give “an opportunity for Russia to tell its story” in the West, as GPlus’ Media Adviser to the Press Service of the Kremlin, Tim Price, once put it in an interview.

Their job is to spin positive political messages for their client, even as US and EU sanctions are tightened.

The multimillion dollar PR contract, which dates from 2006, involves both media and lobbying work.

For example, in 2013, Ketchum placed an op-ed on Syria by Putin in the New York Times.

As the Ukraine crisis hit in 2014, GPlus circulated in Brussels a letter from Russia to media and heads of state, threatening to cut off the gas supplies of various European countries via Ukraine unless they helped that country pay off its gas debts to Gazprom – the Russian state gas company that Ketchum and GPlus also represent.

However, GPlus is far from the only European PR firm in the lucrative pay of a repressive regime.

All over the world, dictators, war criminals, torturers, and governments that abuse human rights are paying European PR and/or lobbying firms to whitewash their images, smear dissidents and opponents, run their elections, hide their abuses, and lobby for lucrative investment, trade deals, aid, and political support with the EU institutions and member states.

This thorny issue was the subject of a recent report, Spin doctors to the autocrats published by the lobbying watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). [Editor’s note: this article is written by the main author of the report]

The reports looks into the growing phenomenon of repressive regimes outsourcing diplomacy via 18 case studies, highlighting the lack of transparency in the EU and its member states about this kind of lobbying.

The cases uncovered are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg: due to the weakness of lobby reporting requirements, the more controversial the client, the less likely it is to have been uncovered.


From Bahrain to Kazakhstan and Nigeria

The report includes the case of Bahrain which, as part of an ongoing brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in which nearly 100 have died, has contracted multimillion dollar help from PR firm Bell Pottinger and others to regain its allure as an investment and banking hub.

At the height of the Arab Spring, in 2011, Bell Pottinger helped set up a media centre in Bahrain to assist journalists to communicate the regime’s perspective.

Some of Bahrain’s communication spending also appears to have been aimed at maintaining security support from EU partners, and monitoring dissent.

PR is also key for the dictatorship of Kazakhstan, which recently created a purportedly independent Brussels think tank for Central Asia, the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA), that is in reality a front group funded by the Kazakh Finance Ministry.

Current and former European leaders, from Roman Prodi to Gerhard Schröder to Tony Blair, have been recruited as political advisers to Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1991.

Undeterred by the assassination of a group of striking oil-workers in 2012, Blair’s contacts enabled Kazakhstan to recruit high level PR firms such as Portland Communications, as well as numerous others from around Europe.

An investigation by revealed records that appeared to indicate both Portland, and German firm Media Consulta, used ‘sockpuppet’ accounts (assuming a false identity online) to edit Wikipedia entries on Kazakhstan’s human rights record.

In fact, Kazakhstan’s huge PR spend has allowed the country to achieve a series of astonishing, near-Orwellian successes on the international scene, such as chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012 despite the organisation deeming every single one of the elections since Nazarbayev has been in power as failing to meet democratic standards; and joining the UN Human Rights Council at the end of 2012, despite worsening rights abuses.

It is currently seeking to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

BGR Gabara was also a key PR firm that, until very recently, worked on Kazakhstan’s image.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism caught the firm’s founder Ivo Ilic Gabara on tape in a sting operation in 2011 admitting, “Mother Teresa doesn’t need our services. She isn’t going to come to us as a client. It’s always the difficult issues. If someone is willing to spend money on media relations, it’s because they have a problem.”

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria is certainly no Mother Teresa. His use of public relations firms to whitewash his reputation for corruption, rights abuses, and the disastrous handling of Boko Haram has been hugely controversial.

As his unpopularity grew, in 2014 he brought on board Washington-based PR firm Levick, with an eye on the upcoming elections, to “change the international and local media narrative surrounding Nigeria’s efforts to find and safely return the girls abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram,” according to the US$1.2 million contract.

This drew heavy criticism from Nigerians who, alongside the famous #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign, spawned the hashtag #someonetelllevick, outraged at money being spent on spin when the government was failing to act.

Since then, Jonathan has reportedly hired both US strategists and a London PR firm to run his election campaign; The Africa Report claims this latter company is Bell Pottinger, though the firm denies it.

Meanwhile the opposition candidate, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, is paying another British PR firm, BTP Advisers (again, along with US strategists) to run his campaign.


Brussels’ lack of transparency

The lack of transparency with which European PR firms operate is not inevitable.

The United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires all lobbyists working for any foreign government to be registered.

Thus we know far more about the governments contracting lobbyists in Washington than we do about those in Brussels: the brutal dictatorship of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is paying Qorvis for PR services, as are Saudi Arabia and China.

Because the contracts are published online, we know that Qorvis’ work for China includes “real-time monitoring of Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs and other social media in the English language”, as well as setting up a “war room to deal with challenges in times of crises”.

Meanwhile Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who came to power in an army coup, has massacred hundreds of protesters, crushing dissent by lethal force and imprisoning over 22,000 people, is paying the Glover Park Group for PR representation in Washington.

Brussels is second only to Washington in lobbying importance, yet none of these regimes named above also have paid lobbyists that appear in the EU’s lobby register.

It seems unlikely that China, for example, which as of January 2015 had no less than 10 lobbying companies working for it listed in Washington, is not paying anyone in Brussels to lobby the EU – but it and its various departments appear nowhere as clients on Europe’s Transparency Register.

The only way to confirm whether this is truly an accurate picture of the reality would be for the EU to achieve FARA-like reporting standards. To do so, the EU would simply have to clarify that lobbying, as defined in the Transparency Register for non-EU governments, is required to be reported – and enforce this.

Transparency campaigner Helen Darbishire, of Access Info Europe says: “Campaigners, journalists, and all EU citizens have a right to know who is lobbying our decision-makers, on which dossiers, and how much money they spend on lobbying. Full transparency is essential for getting a true picture of lobbying in Brussels.”

Moreover, while GPlus (unlike many lobbyists in Brussels) has been careful to list its clients such as Russia in the EU’s Transparency Register, even when the client is disclosed there is still serious lack of detail or clarity about the nature of the lobbying work, due to weak reporting requirements.

Despite the Juncker Commission’s recent re-launch of the register, it does not significantly improve the quality of the data, nor help discover who is lobbying and over what issues, nor how much is truly being spent.

As Olivier Hoedeman of CEO says, “What is needed is a proper, legally binding mandatory register, with greater contractual detail required and with its accuracy enforced.”

Transparency campaigners Alter-EU point out that the register also has an existing code of conduct that registrants sign up to, that is “weak and vaguely-worded, and in practice is treated by registrants as little more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise. It bans... ‘inappropriate behaviour’, but provides insufficient guidance on what this actually is.”

For CEO, doing PR in Brussels for Russia, a country targeted for EU sanctions due to the “illegal annexation of Crimea” and “deliberate destabilisation of a neighbouring sovereign country,” could be seen as a breach of this code of conduct.

They would like to see the code added to its existing requirements of ethical behaviour, prohibiting the representation by private firms of regimes the EU considers to be in breach of human rights.

As Hoedeman observes: “Normal diplomatic channels exist for inter-governmental negotiations. There is simply no legitimate case for the PR representation of war criminals, dictators, torturers, and human rights abusers.”