Capitalism is alive and well in American public relations firms where no one wants to ask where the money comes from. Not content with run-of-the-mill product recognition, crisis management, and personality molding, firms are now hyping repressive dictatorships in international markets.
South Africa, Haiti, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey all have tapped their treasuries in order to hire American PR firms to perform some necessary cosmetic surgery. The Philippines, under Marcos, was a regular client of PR consultant John McHugh Stuart until recently.
Selling apartheid could be the ultimate PR challenge. Today there are 31 American firms, up from 22 in 1979, representing the South African government — giving it the most heavily endowed foreign propaganda machine in the United States. Bleaching civil rights atrocities makes for big business.
One of the firms, Baskin & Sears, was paid half a million dollars from 1981 to 1984 to “lobby, represent, advise, and assist” the repressive government. A typical example of their work: organize a cocktail party so that South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha could meet with Reagan administration officials; the cocktail party was followed by a dinner where Botha met with influential American journalists and correspondents.
When controversy developed over the firm doing business with both South Africa and the City of Pittsburgh, the firm had to choose between the two. The decision was made to drop Pik Botha. That is when John P. Sears, the original director of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential bid, broke with Baskin so that he could continue to handle South Africa’s half-million-dollar account.
Turkey, labeled one of the worst human-rights violators in Europe by Helsinki Watch, signed on with Gray & Company in 1983 for an annual fee of $300,000. The goal was to increase Turkey’s economic and military aid from the U.S. Apparently Congress was persuaded of Turkey’s vital position for the West. In 1984, Turkey received nearly one billion dollars in economic and military aid, becoming the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
Possibly fearing that working for a dictator isn’t good p.r., public relations firms are defensive about their morally-murky accounts. Maintaining that they are not “manipulating the public dialogue,” firms say they are simply making sure that a foreign ambassador’s message gets across in Washington. The objective is to make sure no one is misunderstood. With million dollar fees, it would hardly appear otherwise.
MOTHER JONES, “January 1985, “The Toughest Accounts,” by Greg Goldin, pp 27-31+.