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The diabolical business of global public relations firms

Peter Phillips
 
The expansion of public relations and propaganda (PRP) firms inside news systems in the world today has resulted in a deliberate form of news management. Maintenance of continuous news shows requires a constant and ever-entertaining supply of stimulating events and breaking news bites. Corporate media are increasingly dependent on various government agencies and PRP firms as sources of news.
The PRP industry has experienced phenomenal growth since 2001. In 2015, three publicly traded mega PR firms—Omnicom, WPP, and Interpublic Group—together employed 214,000 people across 170 countries, collecting $35 billion in combined revenue. Not only do these firms control massive wealth, they also possess a network of connections in powerful international institutions with direct links to national governments, multi-national corporations, global policy-making bodies, and the corporate media.
Full Story
Peter Phillips
 
The expansion of public relations and propaganda (PRP) firms inside news systems in the world today has resulted in a deliberate form of news management. Maintenance of continuous news shows requires a constant and ever-entertaining supply of stimulating events and breaking news bites. Corporate media are increasingly dependent on various government agencies and PRP firms as sources of news.
The PRP industry has experienced phenomenal growth since 2001. In 2015, three publicly traded mega PR firms—Omnicom, WPP, and Interpublic Group—together employed 214,000 people across 170 countries, collecting $35 billion in combined revenue. Not only do these firms control massive wealth, they also possess a network of connections in powerful international institutions with direct links to national governments, multi-national corporations, global policy-making bodies, and the corporate media.
Since 9/11 propaganda multiplied
In The Practice of Public Relations, Fraser P. Seitel defined public relations as “helping an organization and its public adapt mutually to each other.” Propaganda can be defined as the dissemination of ideas and information for the purpose of inducing or intensifying specific attitudes and actions. Both PR and propaganda seek to change behaviours and ideas among the masses in support of the agendas of public and private institutions. (For an early history of state propaganda, see Jacuie L’Etang, “State Propaganda and Bureaucratic Intelligence: The Creation of the Public Relations in 20th Century Britain,” Public Relations Review 24, no. 4 (1998): 413-41.)  As Douglas Kellner and other researchers have documented, since 9/11 public relations firms have contributed to increased levels of media propaganda.
Consider the Rendon Group, one of the key PR firms supporting US propaganda efforts during recent wars. In the 1980s, it produced public relations propaganda for the ousting of Panama’s president, Manuel Noriega. The Rendon Group also shaped international support for the first Gulf War, and in the 1990s created the Iraqi National Congress. The Rendon Group provided the images that mobilized public support for a permanent war on terror, including the fake news stories of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, the heroic rescue of US Army private Jessica Lynch, and dramatic tales of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. As James Bamford reported in a 2005 article in Rolling Stone, Pentagon documents show thirty-five contracts with Rendon from 2000-2004, worth a total of between $50-100 million dollars.
 
Truth mostly absent
PRP firms have emerged as orchestrators of global information and news. The world today faces a military-industrial-media empire, bolstered by PRP firms, that is so powerful and complex that truth is mostly absent or reported only in disconnected segments with little historical context. In late 1999, Ben Bagdikian, the author of Media Monopoly and  former Washington Post editor, told me that he estimated that two-thirds of all news stories originated with PR firms; in 2003, an article from the Guardian conservatively estimated that 50-80% of news and business stories originated from public relations firms. The result is managed news by governments, corporations, and PRP firms—often interlocked—including both the release of specific stories intended to build public support as well as the deliberate non-coverage of news stories that may undermine capitalist elites’ goals and interests.
PRP firms provide a variety of services to major corporations and institutions around the world. Brand enhancement and sales are undoubtedly among their key services. However, companies offer much more, including research and crisis management for corporations and governments, public information campaigns, web design and promotions, and corporate media placement. WPP’s Hill & Knowton proudly brags on its website that they service 50% of the Fortune Global 500 companies from their offices in forty countries. Along with Omnicom’s Fleishman and Hillard, Hill & Knowlton have been the key PRP firms working with Monsanto to protect its brand Roundup, which contains the herbicide glyphosate. Roundup is the most widely-used herbicide in the world, being sold in over 130 countries, but the World Health Organization recently declared glyphosate a human carcinogen. As countries begin to restrict its use, PRP firms gear up to protect Monsanto’s profits.
 
$Billions spent on misinformation
WPP’s Hill & Knowton is also well known for its early involvement with the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), originally established in 1954 to counter the 1952 Reader’s Digest report linking cancer to tobacco smoking. In 1993, the Wall Street Journal described CTR as the “longest-running misinformation campaigns in U.S. business history” (A.M. Freedman and L.P. Cohen, “Smoke and Mirrors: How Cigarette Makers Keep Health Questions ‘Open’ Year after Year,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1993.)
It was WPP’s Burson-Marsteller who created the frontgroup Global Climate Coalition (GCC). From 1989-2001, the GCC helped the oil and auto industries downplay the dangers of global warming. Initial members of the coalition included Amoco, American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Chrysler, Exxon, Ford, GM, Shell, and Texaco. In addition from 2007-2015 the US federal government spent over $4 billion dollars for PRP services. The US employs 3,092 public relations officers in 139 agencies. An additional $2.2 billion goes to outside firms to perform PRP, polling, research, and market consulting. The world’s top PRP firms reaped millions of US dollars in 2014 including Laughlin, Marinaccio & Owens ($87.98M), WPP-Young & Rubicam Inc. ($57.5M), WPP-Ogilvy Public Relations  ($47.93M), Omnicon-FleishmanHillard ($42.4M), and Gallup ($42.0M). WPP’s Burson-Marsteller won a $4.6 million contract with the US Department of Homeland Security in 2005 to develop public awareness and education for a major emergency, disaster, or terrorist attack in Washington DC.
Before the first Gulf War, a fake news propaganda spectacle took place courtesy of WPP’s Hill & Knowlton. They were hired by Citizens for a Free Kuwait and eventually received nearly $10.8 million to conduct one of the most effective public relations campaigns in history. Hill & Knowlton helped create a national outrage against Iraq by publicizing the horrifying events supposedly caused by Iraqi soldiers during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
 
PR ‘perfect CIA cover’
In testimony to the House of Representative’s Human Rights Caucus, a young woman named Nayirah said that she saw “Iraqi soldiers come into the [Kuwaiti] hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” What the public was not told was that Nayirah was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, and that her performance was coordinated by the White House and choreographed by the US public relations firm Hill & Knowlton on behalf of the Kuwaiti government.
As Johan Carlisle reported, former CIA official Robert T. Crowley, who served as a liaison between the agency and PR firms, acknowledged that “Hill & Knowlton’s overseas offices…were perfect ‘cover’ for the ever-expanding CIA. Unlike other cover jobs, being a public relations specialist did not require technical training for CIA officers.” Furthermore, Crowley admitted, the CIA used its Hill & Knowlton connections to “put out press releases and make media contacts to further its positions… Hill & Knowlton employees at the small Washington office and elsewhere distributed this material through CIA assets working in the United States news media.”
A global war on terrorism requires continuous ideological justification, aimed at the mass of people who instinctively favour peace. PRP firms provide an on-going rationalization for war by servicing government propaganda activities, military contractors, pro-war Hollywood films, and the marketing of war toys, cartoons and related products.
 
Sophisticated media control
The techniques for marketing brands are essentially the same as for marketing war. PRP firms produce creative, visually-stimulating, emotional ads that spotlight families with loving children in danger of others, protected by official authorities, including homeland security, police or military personnel: “To get to you…they’d have to get past us,” touted the narrator of “American Navy – the Shield,” produced by the advertising firm Campbell Ewald, which first aired on CBS during the 2014 Army-Navy football game. In May 2015, The Navy Times reported that the Navy had awarded its Recruiting Command contract—“initially valued at $84.4 million for a one-year fixed-price”—to New York-based Young & Rubicam.
The big three global PRP firms are key contributors to the global hegemony of capitalism. PRP firms and their corporate media partners aid corporations, governments, and non-governmental organizations in an unrelenting ideological assault on, and pacification of the minds of the masses around the world. The overall message is the continued acquisition of material products and consumption, expanded desire for a life of luxury, fear of others—including terrorists, criminals, and threatening peoples—the support of police states, acceptance of a permanent war on terrorism, and the equation of private corporations with democratic governance. This is what Noam Chomsky called engineering opinion and parading enemies (Media Control, Seven Stories Press, 2002).
The PRP industry is highly concentrated and fully global. With $35 billion in annual revenue, the big three PRP firms are key components of the transnational capitalist class. The PRP industry’s primary goal is the promotion of capital growth through hegomonic psychological control of human desires, emotions, beliefs, and values.
 
Understanding the absurdity
PRP firms do this by manipulating the thoughts and feelings of human beings worldwide. In many ways PRP firms are the ideological engine of capitalism, due to both their massive influence in world corporate media and their increasing embedded role in the propaganda of national governments, including psychological operations in support of a permanent war on terror.
Perhaps democracy movements can offer us some hope for the future.  Consciousness of the dark side of PRP and its unrestricted power to warp minds is an important first step. Among some recent positive steps taken by activists to limit the power of PRP, Quebec has become one of the first regions to ban commercial advertising targeting children under the age of 13. For that matter, three generations of people in Cuba have grown up without product advertising in their lives. A group of graduate students from the University of Havana simply laughed when I asked them five years ago if they ever wanted a “Happy Meal.” It seemed absurd to them to even consider the idea. We too need to understand the absurdity of the PRP industry, and to move to eliminate its influence from our lives, our cultures, and our world.
 
NOTE: This article is based on more in-depth research, originally published as “Selling Empire, War, and Capitalism: Public Relations Propaganda Firms in Service to the Transnational Capitalist Class,” pp. 285-315 in Censored 2017: Fortieth Anniversary Edition, edited by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016).  The full report of this story is available here.

Peter Phillips is a Professor of Political Sociology at Somona State University. Sonoma State University students Ratonya Coffee, Nicole Tranchina, Robert Ramirez, and Mary Schafer provided research support.

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Assam Muslim teen singer fights against Islamic ideologues

Nava Thakuria in Guwahati
 
Nahid Afrin
Assam, since time immemorial, is known for its plurality and religious tolerance. The land of Vaishnavite saint Mohapurush Srimanta Sankardev, who speared the message of love and cohesion five centuries back, today witnesses how a Muslim teenage girl and Assam’s singing sensation is performing at public functions braving restrictions imposed by orthodox Islamic bodies.
On March 14, some people distributed a two-page leaflet saying that a proposed cultural show at Udali Sonai Bibi College ground at the Muslim-dominated Lanka town of Hojai district is anti-Islamic and should be stopped. In the leaflet, 46 Muslim leaders representing a number of State based Islamic organizations, insisted that no cultural function should be organized at the venue as it is surrounded by Mosque, Madrassa, Eidgah and graveyards.
Full Story
Nava Thakuria in Guwahati
 
Nahid Afrin
Assam, since time immemorial, is known for its plurality and religious tolerance. The land of Vaishnavite saint Mohapurush Srimanta Sankardev, who speared the message of love and cohesion five centuries back, today witnesses how a Muslim teenage girl and Assam’s singing sensation is performing at public functions braving restrictions imposed by orthodox Islamic bodies.
On March 14, some people distributed a two-page leaflet saying that a proposed cultural show at Udali Sonai Bibi College ground at the Muslim-dominated Lanka town of Hojai district is anti-Islamic and should be stopped. In the leaflet, 46 Muslim leaders representing a number of State based Islamic organizations, insisted that no cultural function should be organized at the venue as it is surrounded by Mosque, Madrassa, Eidgah and graveyards.
Muslim clerics opposed singing
The next function at the venue is scheduled for ‘Nahid Afrin cultural nite’ on 25 March, where the popular teenage singer is scheduled to perform. The first runner-up of Indian Idol Junior 2015, a hugely popular television reality show, Nahid thus faces the Fatwa from the Muslim clerics for breaking the Sharia, the  Islamic rules and ways of living.
As the news was published and televised by the print and electronic media went viral in social media, Nahid at her residence in Biswanath Chariali locality of eastern Assam was  shocked. The class tenth standard students, who made her Bollywood singing debut for Sonakshi Sinha starrer ‘Akira’ recently, only wept murmuring she can’t live without singing. “It is (my singing) the gift from Allah. I should properly utilize it, otherwise Allah will be angry,” said 16 years old Nahid and asserted that she would not bow down to this pressure and continue practicing music with the support from the people of Assam in particular and India in general.
The leaflet, written in unprocessed Assamese language, has not mentioned Nahid by name, but the clerics obviously meant it. The Assamese intellectuals, writers, journalists, politicians, cultural personalities and even separatist armed militants of Assam unanimously raised voices against the clerics’ demand. They also criticized their statement that said music, theatre, magic etc are anti-Islamic.
Assam police sources suspect that Nahid might have been targeted as she performed in few ant-terror (anti-Islamic fundamentalist) musical pieces. Moreover, she participated in some songs dedicated to Hindu mythology.
 
Govt. assures all help
However, Assam police chief Mukesh Sahay said that the matter was under serious investigation and he assured that the democratic rights of every citizen would be protected. Meanwhile, the State chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal came down heavily against the fatwa.
He called Nahid personally over telephone and assured her all possible help from the government. Stating that Nahid is the pride of Assam, the young chief minister declared that she can perform anywhere in the State without any fear from anybody. “Such a ruling against practicing art and culture is unacceptable and is tantamount to infringement of one’s freedom of cultural rights,” said the chief minister who also holds the home portfolio.
He also observed that a section of vested interest group is hell bend to disturb the age old bonhomie of Assam and reiterated that the amity and integrity of the State would be upheld at any cost so that people belonging to the valleys, hills and plains can live peacefully representing the ethos of unity in diversities.
As the news spreads all over, number of Union ministers and many politicians, film personalities and social activists stood behind Nahid and encouraged her to be devoted to the music. Even Bangladeshi exiled author Taslima Nasreen, who is a victim of religious fanaticism in her own country, twitted appreciating Nahid for her brave statement to go against the Mullahs. She went ahead demanding stringent punishments to those clerics arguing that “they don’t believe in human rights, women’s rights”.
Different media outlets also came out with strong articles in her support, condemning the attitude of the clerics targeting an upcoming singer. Besides, they also emphasized that the secular ethos and composite culture of Assam should be upheld.
 
Secular Muslims support Nahid
Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), in a different note, pointed out that the clerics were not targeting Nahid, but the particular cultural show at the field. The forum claimed that by this notice, the clerics indirectly wanted to keep away any cultural (read anti-Islamic) programs in the space.
Taking the advantage of the situation, Assam’s separatist militant leader Paresh Barua also joined in the foray. The self-styled head of United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent), Barua strongly condemned the unwanted Fatwa against Nahid. Speaking to the city based media persons from an undisclosed location, he stated that there is no place for religious fanaticism in Assam.
Facing the heat, Assam State Jamiat Ulama came out with a statement that it was not a Fatwa against Nahid. The leaders of Jamiat Ulama rather blamed the media for spreading misinformation. Even the national level Islamic leader Umer Ilyasi commented that any Fatwa may only crate controversy. But he insisted that the Assam clerics should have talked to Nahid advising her not to go against the Sharia laws.
On the contrary, Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy applauded the achievements of Nahid (including Suhana Sayed from Karnataka), who have wowed music lovers cutting across religions with their outstanding singing talents. Its convener Javed Anand condemns any “attempt of certain Muslims who with their blinkered brand of Islam seek to silence the nightingales of Indian Islam”.

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