By William Fisher
Well, Matt Lauer’s got his hands full.
No, not the TV Matt Lauer. The other Matt Lauer. The one who used to do public diplomacy work for the US State Department and now does PR for a Washington company called Qorvis Communications.
Why are his hands full? The good news is that his firm just got a big new account. The bad news is that it’s the Kingdom of Bahrain.
That’s bad news because it’s a little like getting the Pol Pot account; there wouldn’t seem to be a lot a PR firm could do to burnish Mr. Pol Pot’s “image.” Not even for $40,000 a month plus expenses.
King Hamad-Bin-Isa-Al-Khalifa is no Pol Pot. But he has unleashed the full fury of the government apparatus on peaceful demonstrators. His security police and army have killed many of these demonstrators. Hundreds have been wounded. Even larger numbers have been arrested and, according to reputable human rights groups, have been tortured and otherwise abused in prison, where they have little access to lawyers or even family members.
What do PR firms customarily do with high profile clients with deeply tarnished “images?” They’ll construct a narrative presenting the King’s version of what’s happened. They will have the King say, as he did this week, that he will forgive all the miscreants. He will make speeches about the openness of the government to “dialogue.” He may even empty his prisons of political prisoners as a pre-condition to dialogue.
They’ll issue an endless stream of press releases and films designed to reassure the world – and especially the tourist trade – that peace has been restored and all is well in the Kingdom. And they will need to reassure the sponsors of Formula One auto racing that it’s OK for them to drive in Bahrain.
Meanwhile, the improvised, home-grown PR machinery of the demonstrators will continue to push out story after story designed to heighten awareness of the dire human rights situation still prevailing in the tiny Kingdom. Journalists covering this story – and there are very few of them – will continue to receive pictures of corpses butchered by their jailers.
And e-mailed statements from those leaders not yet arrested or out on bail. And daily tallies of deaths and detentions and military trials and the usual array of police state toys.
Mr. Lauer’s task may be made a bit easier by the presence of Bahrain’s two most powerful friends. One is Saudi Arabia – also a client of Lauer’s firm --- which is just 20 minutes over the causeway to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia actually sent troops into Bahrain, where they are currently helping the King and his family to quell the protests. The last thing the Saudis want is a Shia controlled country 20 minutes away from their Eastern oilfields.
So Mr. Lauer and his colleagues are going to have to deal with the religious aspects of their client’s situation. The King and his family, you see, are Sunni Muslims, like the Saudis. The majority of the people of Bahrain are Shia Muslims, just like the Iranians. One of the Shia’s main protests is that they are systematically excluded from any job with any authority.
Mr. Lauer’s other advantage is the silence of the United States. The Crown Prince – the King’s son – has been dispatched to Washington to reassure the State Department and President Obama that his government is eager to engage in dialogue with the protesters but that they won’t play until unacceptable conditions have been met. The US Government has helped by emphasizing the important of dialogue.
Bahrain is of strategic importance to the US. Its Fifth Fleet is housed there. And the US can’t afford to annoy the Saudis too much, because we buy their oil, they’re still fretting about Obama letting Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak resign too soon, and they represent the Sunni balance of power in the Mideast.
When the Crown Prince visited Washington, he told the folks at the State Department that he was worried about Bahrain’s “image” and its negative impact on tourism. So that’s what Mr. Lauer and his team of warriors will try to correct in the eyes of the US Government and the Congress and in major nation capitals in Europe.
So we will see whether “the engineering of consent” – the phrase used by the father of PR to define this form of art – can trump the suffering of an undervalued, abused, and gutsy populace.
How will a public relations program explain – perhaps even attempt to justify – the death of a 14-year-old boy, Ali Jawad, who was participating with thousands of other peaceful Bahrainis in an Eid celebration. A member of the security forces fired a teargas canister at him at point-blank range.
The point is that most honest public relations practitioners will tell you that only limited change can be made in people’s attitudes until there are substantial and well-communicated changes in the policies that caused the problem in the first place.
If Mr. Lauer and his colleagues can do that, they should get a raise to $80,000 a month!
PS: After this post was written, I learned that Joe Trippi, the internet fund-raising guru who landed John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign among the big boys, has become the latest to join Bahrain's PR team. This is a huge disappointment to those of us who developed a great respect for Trippi during the campaign. Sadly, it reminded me of Andy Hatcher, JFK's African-American Deputy Press Secretary, who ended up flacking for the apartheid regime of South Africa before Mandela.