Global Policy Forum

Selling Iraq on a New Government


By Heather Timmons

International Herald Tribune
April 5, 2004

In the 11 months since U.S.-led forces took Baghdad, the coalition has tried to persuade the Iraqi people that the invasion and ensuing promise of democracy are in their best interests. Many in Iraq still refuse to believe it, as the savage killings in Falluja last week demonstrated. Now, the London-based public relations agency Bell Pottinger is trying to reinforce that message and drive it home.

Bell Pottinger, which is known for its crisis public relations work, was paid nearly $6 million to mount a television campaign that will air in Iraq from this week until sovereignty is handed over at the end of June. The firm, which will work with Bates PanGulf of WPP Group and a Baghdad-based services company, Balloch Roe, expects to continue the campaign under a separate contract after that time. The purpose is to persuade Iraqi factions to try to work together peacefully to direct their own future by participating in the national election in November.

Bell Pottinger says its mandate is to produce unbiased public service announcements. "All we're doing is trying to keep people informed about the process and persuade them to participate in it," said Tim Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger's parent company, Chime Communications. An escalation of violence does not change that mandate, Bell said. "We deal with circumstances as they arise," he said. "We're completely nonjudgmental." The Americans writing the check have a more ideological take. The commercials will carry a "message of participation in the democratic process, and the hope for the future that democracy brings to Iraq," Michael Pierson, the Coalition Provisional Authority's communication planner, said by telephone from Baghdad.

Some Arabic news outlets are not sold on the idea. Said al Shouly, deputy chief editor of Al Jazeera, the largest Arabic-language television channel, said by telephone that he did not condone this type of advocacy advertising in general. Iraq would be a tough enough spot to pitch something as innocuous as dishwashing detergent, let alone an intangible, unfamiliar political ideal. Because the country is divided by languages, religions and tribal associations, and still racked by violence and gunfire, Bell Pottinger has had to carefully plan its strategy. "In an environment where there isn't just one answer, you have to make sure you're not exacerbating the problem," Bell said. He would not give more details about the ads, saying that he would like to wait until they were shown in Iraq.

There is not much of a precedent for using advertising to try to spread democracy, and the idea needs to be carefully managed, said James Lee Ray, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "I'd put a lot of thought into trying to emphasize the congruence of democratic principles with Islamic culture," Ray said. "I'd point to the idea that democracy is not an American invention." Similar campaigns have had mixed results. A U.S.-sponsored campaign in Russia in the early 1990s that promoted capitalism by urging citizens to buy stakes in newly privatized companies backfired, said Harry Boyte, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public affairs. "It was seen as America meddling in Russian affairs," he said.

Some advertising experts said they were wary about the idea of using television spots to push political change and encourage the growth of democracy. "The danger here is not just a backlash against America meddling in affairs," Boyte said. Learning about democracy through advertising could make it seem like a product, Boyte said, one that could be blamed or abandoned if things did not go well.

Howell James, a founding partner of the London public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, has been appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to the newly created post of permanent secretary for government communications. James is a former political aide to the former Conservative prime minister, John Major.

Media Square of Britain has hired Steve Haithwaite to become chief executive of its retail marketing division. Haithwaite was previously a marketing executive at one of Media Square's biggest clients, the British general merchandise chain Argos.

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