Destroying America's reputation by rebuilding Libya's

Stuck in the middle is the high-brow Monitor Group, made up of Harvard academics and former diplomats. The firm has received fervent public backlash after its work to enhance the reputation of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was exposed in March by The Boston Globe. The company acknowledged in July that it erred in representing Libya and other repressive governments in the past.

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In each case, these respected firms, made up of some of the world’s foremost reputation-management experts, were engaging in image-cleansing, reputation-building activities that most Americans consider repugnant. As a public relations professional, I find their work to be not the best representation of my profession.

They were, in effect, counseling enemies of global democracy; ruthless despots who cut down their own people to save whatever feeble remnants of their legacies may remain. When asked to explain their questionable work, most offer a ham-handed response to the effect of: “We’re just the messengers.” This explanation is an insult to all who value transparent and ethical communications from governments and private businesses alike.  
In trying to improve tyrants’ images and reputations, these firms are damaging America’s international reputation. And with the S&P downgrade, the U.S. can ill afford another reputational hit.

American consultancies providing counsel to foreign governments is nothing new. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was created in 1938, in part, to handle these sorts of arrangements.

What is novel, however, is the brazenness of some firms to eschew ethical public relations and communications standards by representing undemocratic nations or individuals that the U.S. is either at war with (Libya), or which do not afford their own people the most basic of democratic freedoms of expression (Libya, Bahrain, Syria).

Ethical public relations places an emphasis on counseling reputable organizations and individuals in developing and maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders. The Libyan, Syrian and Bahraini governments have not shown the slightest inclination to cultivate this type of cooperative relationship. Yet all three have seduced American public relations firms into working on their behalf.

One has to question what the attraction is. Is it all for the allure of working with a big-name client and the money?

Efforts to “enhance international appreciation of Libya and positive news coverage of the country,” as the Monitor Group engaged in, or to secure a fawning Vogue magazine profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, as Brown Lloyd James reportedly accomplished (Vogue eventually removed the profile from its website after heavy international protest from readers.), do little to build Americans’ trust in these governments. Most disturbingly, the work insults the very freedoms that allow these firms to engage in such questionable services in the first place.

Yes, everyone has the right to have his voice and perspective heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for U.S. PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous to America’s liberties and its reputation as a marketplace for dissenting ideas.

To be fair, many of the firms in question have either disclosed or ended their relationship(s) with various authoritarian regimes.

But there remain far too many opaque and questionable consulting services being offered at a time when America increasingly finds itself under attack by groups and governments who take offense with our freedoms.

These firms are adding to the damage already done to America’s fragile reputation. And the consequences will surely be far more destructive for the United States than the hefty client billings these firms will put back into the American economy.

Rosanna Fiske is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.