A PR Dilemma: What If a Gaddafi Asks You to Repair His Country's Image?

Risks of Representing a Troubled Nation Loom Large, But So Do Potential Rewards

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Among the toughest decisions a communications firm makes is whether to represent a country that has image problems. On the one hand, this kind of work generally involves consequential issues and requires highly strategic counsel, making it both interesting and rewarding. On the other hand, some countries have a bad image for good reason -- and communications may not be able to solve the problem.

As a first step, we must ask ourselves whether the country's image problem is a matter of perception or of reality. If it is the latter, our next question is whether government leaders are genuinely seeking to address that reality. After many years of work in international public affairs, I have learned the answers are seldom clear-cut.

Countries lie on a continuum from the most free and humane to the least. At the positive end are those that use communications to promote trade, economic development and tourism, but likely do not need "reputational" support. At the other end of the spectrum are countries such as North Korea and Syria. At either extreme, the decisions are easy. The challenge comes from countries in the middle.

Take Libya, for example. Late in 2003, Libya renounced the use of weapons of mass destruction, gave up its weapons stockpile and invited international inspectors in to verify its good faith. Three years later, the United States established full diplomatic relations with the country it had once designated a "state sponsor of terrorism." Not long after that , Libya began shopping in Washington for lobbying and communications representation. Fleishman-Hillard was one of the firms they approached.

Credit: Daniel Acker, Bloomberg

By that time, it was well established that Libya's openness to the West was real. Although its image problems were clearly based on a bad reality, all evidence indicated that the government was legitimately taking steps to address them. Time to go to work? Not necessarily. First, Libya was still led by Muammar Gaddafi, who over the years had established himself as a notorious bad actor. And there remained deep wounds from its past behavior, particularly the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the accompanying loss of life, for which a Libyan intelligence officer was convicted.

Now we know that Libya could not have moved forward under Gaddafi. But at the time, there was a school of thought arguing that the country should be encouraged in its new openness: Libya should serve as an example for other despotic regimes of the rewards that come when you join the family of well-behaved nations. In fact, to continue to ostracize Libya would be counter to the interests of a peaceful world.

When the Libyan government approached Fleishman-Hillard, we had an internal debate, and declined the assignment because we felt Gaddafi would never be able to fully conform to international norms and standards. The regime's history and Gaddafi's reputation gave us serious concerns about his true intentions and plans for the future.

These can be tough calls, given the information available to us. Often we have to divine the motives and intentions of those seeking help. Do they hope to gloss over bad behavior, or are they trying to align a negative image with a much better reality?

Now consider the case of Myanmar (also known as Burma). Its recent transformation has been dramatic. In a matter of months, it has gone from a pariah state to hosting multiple senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The country's most famous dissident, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been elected to parliament and travels the world advocating for human rights. By all indications, Myanmar has entered a new era. Still, it is early in the country's transformation, and even as of this writing there is street violence that could threaten the transition to democracy. Although Myanmar may sincerely be moving into a new era, we can only hope that it will succeed. Fleishman-Hillard has not been approached by this government, but it is a country that falls in the ambiguous middle.

These decisions come with significant reputational risks for any agency considering the work. Fortunately, resources are available to help minimize such risk. The first and most important step for a U.S.-based company is to confirm that there are no U.S. government restrictions, prohibitions or sanctions against working for a particular country. Useful information can be obtained from U.S. agencies such as the Department of Treasury and the Department of Commerce. Each of these agencies makes available detailed information relating to the laws that they enforce.

In addition, the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are authoritative. The CIA World Fact Book contains profiles on every country . There are also multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that evaluate individual countries. They include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The European Union Council also has regulations relating to restrictive measures, as do many individual nations.

There is no foolproof formula for deciding whether to represent a country. As is the case with any potential client, we can only gather the best information available and then ask ourselves if the assignment is consistent with the firm's values. The risks are manifest. When countries err, the missteps are often severe -- and the reputational stakes for a communications firm are high. But so, too, is the opportunity to operate at the highest levels of our profession on issues that truly matter.

Martha Boudreau is regional president for Mid-Atlantic and Latin America at Fleishman-Hillard, which represents a number of government clients, including Brazil and Turkey.
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