What Spin Doctors Do

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Ever since the ideological mastermind of modern public relations – Edward Bernays – suggested to modernize the word “propaganda” by calling it public relations, PR and Spin (a form of propaganda) had been with us. And, today, our world is overflowing with ideas that are shaping “professional” spin doctors.

The top ten firms employing rafts of spin-doctors are companies, for which most of us have probably never heard of, namely: Edelman, Weber Shandwick, BCW, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, Brunswick, MSL, BlueFocus, Real Chemistry, (and my personal favorite) Hill+Knowlton. They are ready to give the pathologies of capitalism a nice face.

These propaganda companies – euphemistically re-labeled “PR firms” – employ thousands of communication experts. These firms seek to achieve what PR’s Godfather, the aforementioned Edward Bernays, had set out for them to do when he said:

“the significant revolution of modern times is not industrial or economic or political but the revolution which is taking place in the art of creating consent among the governed.”

Creating consent among “the governed” (as he called us) to have a positive, if not supportive, attitude to capitalism, is the job of public relations. Its spin is a form of propaganda. This is achieved, for example, through knowingly providing a biased interpretation of an event. Unsurprisingly, this also includes corporate campaigning to influence public opinion – creating a positive image – about companies, corporations, and ultimately – capitalism.

Propaganda and public relations are not the same as marketing. The prime task of marketing is to sell products. Whereas the prime task of PR/propaganda is to sell an ideology. For that, public relations manage the presentation of facts – usually, a one-sided presentation. This creates a spin – which is to turn facts about corporations, for example, around so, that they look good.

The work of spin doctors almost always implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and more often than not, manipulative strategies (the planning of an election campaign, for example). Yet, it also implies some tactics – such as, the actual campaigning via TV, newspapers, Facebook, etc.

To achieve a positive image of a political candidate or a corporation, public relations’ advisors, pollsters, and media consultants develop deceptive and often misleading messages. As a consequence, we call those who turn facts around until they support an ideology (e.g. neoliberalism) as spin doctors and spin masters. In general, spin doctors work very hard to make us believe that Toxic Sludge Is Good For Us!

Such spin doctors are only too happy to help corporations while also never shying away from those autocrats and dictators that welcome corporations into their countries – even if it means torturing and murdering trade unionists along the way. Spin doctors are happy to whitewash repressive regimes and equally cruel corporations – of course, for a fee.

From around the world, dictators, repressive regimes, and anti-democratic and even so-called democratic governments that abuse human rights are paying handsome sums of money to public relations firms and lobby consultancies to whitewash them and to create an upbeat and optimistic image. Yet, corporate spin doctors also like to engage into smearing dissidents and opponents of the corporation and even more so to work against those who fight capitalism.

They like to engage and to even run elections as in the case of Cambridge Analytica has shown. Yet, corporate spin doctors also hide corporate and state-organized abuse. They lobby for lucrative investments, profitable trade deals, aids that go straight into the pocket of domestic corporations and lend political support to institutions that shape public opinions.

For example, to ideologically flank the military annexation of the Crimea, the Kremlin contracted a PR/propaganda firm called GPlus – which today is part of Portland. The firm employs several former spokespeople of the European Commission – a handy move when seeking to “influence” (read: manipulate) politics in Europe or lobbying for Putin.

Meanwhile, the dictatorship of Kazakhstan has created a front group in Brussels to push its interests, as well as recruiting current and former European leaders, from Roman Prodi to Gerhard Schröder, to Tony Blair, as political advisers.

Speaking of the former UK Prime Minister Blair who like to sex-up dossiers, London has become the European hot spot for all kinds of reputation laundering. It is so domineering that the place has become known as the London launderettes. Berlin, Paris, and Brussels also play a big role, but London takes the crème.

The Corporate Europe Observatory estimates that there are about 15,000 to 25,000 professional lobbyists in Brussels. Virtually in every capital city – with the potential exception of Havana (Cuba) and Pyongyang (North Korea) – corporate spin doctors outnumber democratically elected politicians by a significant margin.

To honor London’s reputation as Europe’s leading propaganda launderette, the London-based Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council (UBTIC) works as a joint set-up between the British government and the dictatorship of Uzbekistan. This is an official business association promoting trade links for a country where, for decades, cotton was – and perhaps still is! – being harvested using slave labor.

Much of this follows what might be called as the US-model of PR/propaganda. It was set up by Ivy Ledbetter Lee – known in the industry as Poison Ivy. Lee remains as one of the early Godfathers’ of PR. During the 1920s, Poison Ivy pioneered the art of reputation whitewashing – for example, for the Rockefellers after the Ludlow Massacre.

From 1929, Poison Ivy represented IG Farben – a German chemical conglomerate later producing the lethal gas Zykon B for death chambers in German concentration camps .

Quite aside from what normal people associate with a moral code, propaganda and public relations, as well as its corporate spin doctors always go one step further. Deceptively, the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association’s (EPACA) so-called Code of Conduct insists that it observes the highest professional and ethical standards – so did Nestle when handing out baby food. Enron’s ethics code has 65 pages. For Nestle, super-propagandist Burson Marsteller was at hand to help.

During the 2009 gas crisis, Russia achieved positive PR-framing by labeling the Ukraine as an unstable partner stealing gas. This was used by Gazprom to shut off gas supplies. Later, this PR-manufactured language was reflected in EU discussions. In August 2014, EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger warned in a TV interview of the possibility of the Ukraine stealing gas. PR had won.

Russian PR was also successful in France. In a highly sympathetic interview with France’s right-wing extremist Jean Marie Le Pen in 2002 for a British magazine called The Spectator, he said that many French right-wing sympathizers admire the Kremlin. National Front leader Marine le Pen said, relations with the National Front [and the Kremlin] are very friendly. His daughter – Marine Le Pen – continues with her love for Vladimir Putin.

In 2009, the EU Observer reported that Moscow’s EU message is amplified by PR firm Hill + Knowlton. The company’s Brussels chief, Elaine Cruikshanks, promotes Gazprom to offshoot Nord Stream as a purely commercial venture and a strategic prospect for EU’s energy diversity. Hill + Knowlton flew MEPs (EU parliamentarians) to Siberia on a private jet of Russian oil giant Rosneft. All of this held the engineering of European gas dependency on Russian gas.

Corporate public relations work for others too. The African country of Rwanda, for example, has hired several PR firms to work on deflecting criticism, and to work on the goal of rebranding the country. Rwanda’s leader was and is a man called – Paul Kagame. Kagame was widely seen as leading the country from genocide to become an economic success story. Meanwhile, Rwanda was held up as an African development model to be followed.

Uncritical Western support is partly attributed to historical guilt from the international community over the 1994 genocide. Kagame is perceived as a key factor in ending it. But, Kagame is also accused of running an autocratic administration with opposition parties unable to operate, placing strict controls on freedom of expression, and the disappearance of political opponents both in Rwanda and abroad.

Crucially, much of this is what PR calls media familiarization often including organized tours for journalists, politicians, etc. In the case of Rwanda, it paid off handsomely. One outcome of these tours was the media discussions on Rwanda increased by a whopping 4,400% during the time. Yet, the key propaganda successes were elsewhere: discussions about the Rwandan genocide “decreased” by 11%.  Another success for PR and propaganda.

Virtually, the same can be said for Bangladesh. Its government contracted a PR outfit called BGR Gabara – working in London and Brussels – for a reported €17,000 a month. The EU used to give preferential trade access to Bangladesh. Yet, after the collapse of the illegally-built Rana Plaza factory in April 2013, in which 1,129 garment workers died, the EU was considering trade actions in order to pressure Bangladesh’s government to enforce stricter safety standards. 60% of Bangladesh’s clothes’ exports go to Europe.

Bangladesh was rocked by violent demonstrations by garment workers seeking decent wages and better working conditions in the wake of the corporate tragedy. The industry employs mostly women, some of whom only earn €29 a month – just about enough to pay for a bottle of wine at a corporate business lunch of spin doctors.

Meanwhile in Azerbaijan – a country that runs in a manner mirroring feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages, there is a general agreement among leading families to divide the spoils and exploit the place. The country’s oil and gas are of increasingly important strategic values for the European Union.

European politicians were wooed by what one senior Azerbaijani policymaker calls the caviar diplomacy. Many EU deputies were regularly invited to Azerbaijan and generously paid. In a normal year, at least 30 to 40 would be invited, some of them repeatedly.

People were enticed to participate in so-called conferences, public events, and sometimes for summer vacations. Yet, these were real vacations. Many expensive gifts were handed out. These expensive gifts mostly included silk carpets, gold and silver items, drinks, caviar, and money. In Baku, a common gift is a 2 kg worth of caviar – hence caviar diplomacy.

Particularly interesting is the case of Ukraine. Until today, the country is internally riven. Populations in the east are more pro-Russian. However, many Ukrainians took to the streets in 2014 to protest for closer ties with Europe and against the corruption of the Yanukovych government. The President and his cronies known as the familia embezzled an estimated $8bn to $10bn a year after taking power in 2010.

When he fled, Yanukovych left his absurdly opulent mansion on a 130 hectare estate with its own yacht club, cinema, golf course, and menagerie – the light fittings alone had cost €31 million. Yanukovych’s estate has now been designated as a museum of corruption – with daily tours.

Those with their assets frozen by the EU are Yanukovych’s and his closest aides, including his son, former Prime Minister Azarov, Azarov’s son, and a former interior minister, justice minister, prosecutor general, and head of the security services, among others – 22 people in total. Azarov, Yanukovych, and two others are wanted by Interpol for embezzlement and other crimes.

Azarov, who fled to Russia when his (and his son’s) regimes fell have employed Brussels’ PR/law firm Alber & Geiger to unfreeze their assets. Master-propagandists Alber & Geiger describes itself as a political lobbying powerhouse and the leading European government relations’ law firm. According to the EU Observer, Alber & Geiger declined to disclose its fee. Yet, PR industry sources in Brussels said that this type of contract is worth at least €80,000 a month.

Yet, before the Ukrainian regime was toppled (early 2012), Yanukovych’s ruling party employed Burson Marsteller – now called BWC and located in Brussels – to run a smear campaign against Yulia Tymoshenko. She was Yanukovych’s political opponent and had been jailed in 2011 for seven years. Amnesty International (AI) said, the prosecution against Yuliya Tymoshenko is politically motivated. The charges against her are not internationally recognizable offences. AI called for her release.

Lastly, there is a small oil/gas-rich archipelago of Bahrain. Despite the ongoing brutal crackdown on protests in Bahrain since the uprising in 2011, London’s public relations’ firm Bell Pottinger has continued its multi-million-dollar PR support for the Kingdom. The PR’s propaganda outfit works as flies in the face of Bahraini rights’ activists. These had asked PR firms, not to participate in the whitewashing process of the Bahraini government’s – non existing – human rights record. It made no impact.

Bahrain has had several PR mandates for Bell Pottinger. One of these mandates, signed in 2009, was worth over €12.8 million for a five-year contract to whitewash the country. Whitewashing is often framed as re-branding and can be done for a country and a corporation. In the case of Bahrain, it is about selling the place as a business-friendly destination. Well, it might be hard to sell Bahrain as a ‘human rights-friendly’ place.

Propaganda experts at Bell Pottinger also drew criticism for tampering with Wikipedia entries – a standard practice for whitewashing reputations. Beyond all that, London-based tobacco whitewasher company Gardant Communications has also worked for the British Bahraini Embassy from at least 2006. It, too, arranged an “all-party” parliamentary – fully paid – group visit to Bahrain.

Its efforts too, have paid off. Paddy Gillford – Chairman and Founder of Meade Hall & Associates – appeared on Al-Jazeera to defend the Bahraini government, as a beacon of democracy. However, Freedom House sees this rather differently by awarding Bahrain the status of “not free” in 2020. In other words, Bahrain is not a beacon of democracy.

The above noted cases – from the European Union, Russia, the Crimea, Ukraine, Rwanda, France, Kazakhstan, The UK, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain – have shown how propaganda and public relations works. These are, as Noam Chomsky would say, the spectacular achievements of propaganda.

Thomas Klikauer has over 750 publications. His latest book is on Media Capitalism. Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who likes good literature and proofreading, and in her spare time works on her MBA at WSU.