Public Relations and International Affairs: Effects, Ethics and Responsibility

Article excerpt

On 20 October 1990, during the escalation of the Persian Gulf crisis, a teary-eyed 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl known only as Nayirah testified to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take babies from hospital incubators in Kuwait and leave them on the floor to die. Months later, an op-ed piece in the New York Times, followed by stories on the television programs "60 Minutes" and "20-20," revealed that Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.

The hearing had been arranged by the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm on behalf of an organization called Citizens for a Free Kuwait -- an organization funded primarily by the exiled government of Kuwait. In a book on Robert Keith Gray, then head of Hill and Knowlton's Washington, DC office, freelance author Susan Trento reported that Hill and Knowlton had provided witnesses for the hearing, coached them, wrote testimony, produced videotapes detailing the alleged atrocities and ensured that the room was filled with reporters and television cameras.(1)

Fewer than three months later the United States attacked Iraq. By that time, Hill and Knowlton had received $10.7 million from Citizens for a Free Kuwait. With the money, Hill and Knowlton among other things -- organized a press conference with a so-called Kuwaiti freedom fighter, "National Prayer Day" services for Kuwaiti and American servicemen and "Free Kuwait" rallies at 21 college campuses. It also promoted an Islamic art tour, produced advertisements and video news releases, arranged luncheons with journalists and spent more than $1 million polling the American people.(2)

Critics have asked whether or not these extensive and expensive activities by an international public relations firm led the United States to war. The answer is probably no. As Trento put it:

H&K's efforts succeeded in the United Nations, the Congress and

the media because, in each case, there was a receptive audience.

The diplomats and congressmen and senators wanted something

to point to to support their positions. The media wanted interesting,

visual stories.(3)

In short, the Hill and Knowlton campaign probably encouraged decision makers and public opinion to move in a direction in which they were already headed.

Even though the war probably would have occurred without the campaign, one still must ask whether such campaigns are ethical. As Trento noted:

In the end, the question was not whether H&K effectively altered

public opinion, but whether the combined efforts of America's

own government, foreign interests, and private PR and lobbying

campaigns drowned out decent and rational, unemotional debate.

When practiced ethically and responsibly, public relations provides a vital communication function for organizations, nations and even the world, helping to develop an understanding among groups and eventually reduce conflict. When practiced unethically and irresponsibly, however, public relations can manipulate and deceive. More often, though, such public relations merely makes "decent and rational, unemotional debate" on issues difficult.(5)

In this article, I will first describe a theory of public relations and its role in a national and global communication system. Next, I will discuss ethical issues related to the use of public relations firms by governments and political factions. I will then use this theory to analyze several cases of international public relations. Finally, I will analyze the effects and ethics of these international campaigns and derive recommendations for how international public relations can contribute to global diplomacy without obfuscating or corrupting the process.

MANAGEMENT AND DIPLOMACY

The Management Function

Most people, including journalists, understand public relations simplistically as an attempt to influence the media or make an organization or person look good -- in short, as image-making. …