The New York Times reported this week that the Assad family employs Western PR firms to polish its image for the rest of the world. A few years ago, Harper’s contributing editor Ken Silverstein went undercover and approached PR firms as a fake representative of a tyrant who needed to improve his image. He talks to Bob about what he learned.
Artist: The Hundreds in the Hands
Album: Red Night
BOB GARFIELD: As he just told us, there is a propaganda war being waged right alongside the bloody fighting, and it is more sophisticated than dubious pronouncements by the two sides. The New York Times reported this week that the Assad family employs Western PR firms to polish its image for the rest of the world, especially Asma al-Assad, Syria’s First Lady. Paris Match Magazine called her “an Eastern Diana.” Vogue praised her thin physique and great clothes, and The Huffington Post, never one to miss an opportunity to put together a slide show, created one called “Asma al-Assad, Syria’s First Lady, and All Natural Beauty.”
At OTM, we couldn’t help but wonder who in the West would be willing to take on the repugnant job of pitching PR stories about a dictator’s wife to fashion magazines. We turned to Harper’s Contributing Editor Ken Silverstein who, back in 2007, went undercover to investigate two PR firms that try to help dictators win friends and influence people. His cover was that he was working on behalf of the sociopathic government of Turkmenistan.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: The longtime dictator had died and he had been replaced in power by his personal dentist. And I said, you know, it’s a new era for Turkmenistan and we really need some help making sure that people are aware of the important changes going on over there, the emerging democracy. Things aren’t perfect but it’s really getting better, and can you help us out?
BOB GARFIELD: This is a country that was so repressive it had banned video games, car radios, opera, ballet, long hair on men. This was going to be a tough case for any PR firm. Did they turn you down?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Not only did they not turn me down, they were falling all over themselves to win the contract. And, in fact, because it was such a horrible dictatorship, they were saying that they’d have to charge me more.
See, they love these contracts. You know, if you’re lobbying for, I don’t know, Canadian sheep farmers or something, you know, you can’t really charge a premium. But if you’re lobbying for a corrupt thuggish dictatorship, then you make more money because it’s a tough client.
In fact, Cassidy & Associates, one of the lobbying firms I approached, which wanted to charge me 5 million dollars over three years, they actually said to me, you know, we’d actually have to charge you more if something bad happened. I’m paraphrasing there, but that’s essentially what they said. You know, if Human Rights Watch comes out with a negative report or, you know, and again, it was unstated but it was clearly implied that, you know, if unarmed protestors were shot down or something, they might have to jack up their prices.
So they love these clients. The dirtier, the better. It’s much more lucrative.
BOB GARFIELD: So what did they say they could do, for sure?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: APCO specifically said they would write and place op-eds in American newspapers. And what they do is, is that a staffer at APCO would write it. Then they’d go out and recruit an academic or somebody at a think tank to put their name on it. And then they would go place it in an American newspaper, so it would look like some independent, thinking human being, as opposed to a paid flack for a dictatorship. And they said that that would be very simple.
Another thing that was quite interesting is that they promised, both the firms, that they would keep everything under the radar. If you’re lobbying, if you’re going to Capitol Hill as a lobbyist or if you’re meeting with Executive Branch officials, you have to disclose that. But both of the firms talked about how the work they did would in part be public relations and that that they don’t actually have to disclose.
BOB GARFIELD: These firms are vying for your business. What did they tell you about their successes for, you know, other brutal dictators?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: I think the funniest thing was that Cassidy told me that they represented the government of Equatorial Guinea, which really is one of the worst regimes on the planet, just a horrible corrupt thuggish dictatorship. And they said with Equatorial Guinea for years they were on the top ten list of Parade Magazine’s Worst Dictators in the World, President Obion, and we got them off that list. And so, this was this big achievement that they touted. It was funny because I went home and checked. He was off the Top 10. He was then ranked at number 11.
So this was cast to be a great achievement, was they had knocked him down to number 11 on the World’s Worst Dictators List.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m wondering whether these tactics ever really do any good for the clients who are paying big dollars to burnish their reputations. If I read a slide show about Asma al-Assad’s pretty red dress right up against a story about the Syrian Army using eight-year-olds as human shields, is that really gonna soften Syria’s image for me, I mean, even if it’s a super pretty dress?
KEN SILVERSTEIN: [LAUGHS] Well, I mean, maybe if you’re trying to persuade 14-year-old boys with hormonal problems, you might win them over. But no, of course not. I mean, this is a dirty secret of lobbying, which is that most of it is a total scam. These lobbyists will tell the countries that they can make great achievements and that they can really impact public opinion and political opinion. And in some cases, they can achieve real results.
But for the most part, when you’re dealing about a thuggish regime like Syria, which is currently employing brutal violence against demonstrators, that is just not going to fly. They really can’t achieve a lot in a terrible situation. And they don’t like to acknowledge that because that would mean they wouldn’t get their big fat checks.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ken, thank you very much.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor for Harper’s and a fellow at the Open Society Foundations.