Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, is a thug.
In response to demonstrations, the Syrian army has detained and tortured its own citizens, and killed roughly 10,000 civilians (a charge Assad has denied). Journalists either are barred from the country or, if they do enter, are harassed by the government.
Human Rights watch said
, “The crackdown has escalated into indiscriminate military assaults on residential areas and has led to a dire humanitarian situation.”
That behavior hasn’t stopped two public relations firms—one in the U.S. and another in Great Britain—from working with Al-Assad and his wife, Asma.
According to a report in The New York Times
, the Assad family “paid the Washington public relations firm Brown Lloyd James $5,000 a month to act as a liaison between Vogue
and the first lady.”
A flattering profile of Asma appeared in Vogue
in March 2011, around the time the government began its brutal crackdown. (Joan Juliet Buck, the author of the story, and Vogue
editor Anna Wintour have since distanced themselves from the piece, which was recently pulled from the magazine’s website.)
Positive stories about Asma and the Assad family appeared in a variety of other publications, including The Huffington Post
. The coverage began after Asma Assad reached out to Bell Pottinger—a London-based PR firm that’s no stranger to working with controversial regimes—in 2006, the Times
“Tim Bell, a co-founder of the firm and a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said Mrs. Assad contacted the firm after several first ladies, including Laura Bush, began to hold annual meetings and conferences.
“‘She wanted to be a part of that club,” he said in a phone interview.
“Bell Pottinger did not set up interviews for Mrs. Assad directly, but advised her on how to set up a communications office in Damascus to help shape her image.”
An expert on Syria told the Times
that Assad was especially appealing to media outlets because, “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”
Arthur Yann, the vice president of PR at the Public Relations Society of America, said ethical communication is not about the client, but rather the way in which the client behaves, and the manner in which that behavior is portrayed.
“The image of Syria that Brown Lloyd James is passing off on the world stands in stark contrast to media reports of atrocities committed against Syrian citizens and of repressive treatment toward foreign journalists,” he told PR Daily
If Brown Lloyd James and Bell Pottinger were truly concerned with improving Syria’s image, they would use their influence to stop the country’s abuses, Yann said.
The Assad family is not the only questionable client of Brown Lloyd James. Its current and former client roster reads like a rogue’s gallery. It includes Assad, deceased Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, and a purported Iranian terrorist group.
Brown Lloyd James and Bell Pottinger are among at least a handful of PR firms in the U.S. and U.K. that have worked with despots
. Others include Potomac Square Group, Qorvis Communications
, Ruder Finn
, and Monitor Group, which have grabbed headlines for working with Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and The Maldives.
So why do PR firms represent leaders who are known to brutalize his people?
“PR firms work with these thugs because these thugs have lots of money, secured either from legalized theft in their own nations (for example, owning the public utilities or through U.S. aid to their countries), which they siphon off,” said Fraser Seitel, a partner at Emerald Partners. “Firms like Brown Lloyd James, which worked for Syria, take the money, justify the work by citing 'democratizing efforts,' and hope they don't get nailed. When they are, as in the case of the Times
' article, they generally, again as with the Times
' piece, have 'no comment.'”
Matt Ragas, an assistant professor in the college of communication at DePaul University in Chicago, said firms that represent tyrannical governments will “continue to be an ugly blemish on the profession” because it supports the stereotype of “spin doctors.”
“I tell my students that you're only as good as your reputation in this business,” Ragas said. “Choose your clients and partners wisely. They say a lot about you and what you do or don't believe in.
“What great brand or aspiring great brand wants to partner with a public relations professional that plays it fast and loose in the principles department? We can't say we value building and protecting reputations and then do something opposite in our client decisions.”
Ragas also took issue with the counterargument that PR professionals are like attorneys: Every side of an issue deserves representation.
“Where this argument unravels is when you knowingly represent an entity that has clearly behaved illegally and acted unethically,” Ragas said. “And it's not a valid excuse to just ‘look the other way’ and say, well, I didn't know about that until later when the tide turns.”
Last August, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) condemned PR agencies that work with tyrants. In a piece for The Hill
, former PRSA president Rosanna Fiske said these firms are, in effect, “counseling enemies of global democracy.”