By William Fisher
Joe Trippi, the Internet guru who was largely responsible for catapulting the 2008 John Edwards presidential campaign into the big leagues, has a new gig.
He’s just been hired as one of a growing cadre of PR flaks for the Kingdom of Bahrain. Yep, that’s the same Bahrain that human rights groups have been calling out as one of the most cruel and repressive of the Middle East’s Arab regimes.
From Trippi’s website, we learn that “In 2008, Trippi signed on with Senator John Edwards’ presidential bid as a senior advisor, focusing on messaging, Internet strategy and online engagement. He was also responsible for producing the campaign’s television spots, which were widely applauded as “innovative” and “highly creative” and among the best spots of the 2007-2008 election cycle.”
Trippi’s company, Trippi and Associates, will “provide strategic counsel, public affairs and other media communications services for the purpose of supporting the needs of the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain,” according to papers Trippi filed to register as an agent of a foreign power.
Trippi will be joined by another Washington, DC PR firm, Sanitas, which lists among its specialties Crisis Management, Global Media Relations, and
Reputation and Image Management.
Earlier, Bahrain appointed a PR firm called Qorvis Communications, which also represents Bahrain’s pal, Saudi Arabia. The firm’s fee is $40,000 a month plus expenses.
I guess it’s to be expected that a client with such a badly tarnished image would mobilize as many heavy hitters as possible to persuade the international community that the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the royal family didn’t really happen and that the whole thing has been a “breakdown in communications.”
Turns out that Bahrain is more worried about losing big chunks of its tourist trade than it is about its human rights record. Formula One auto racing, one of the centerpieces of Bahrain’s tourist business, recently put a scheduled event on the back burner. The sponsors of that event will need to be persuaded that it’s safe to drive in Bahrain.
That’s going to be a tall order. Because it would be a major stretch to describe Bahrain as safe. The fact is that King Hamad-Bin-Isa-Al-Khalifa has unleashed the full fury of the government security apparatus on peaceful demonstrators. His security police and army have killed many of these demonstrators. Hundreds have been wounded. Doctors and nurses who tried to treat the wounded in a main hospital were arrested, imprisoned, and scheduled for military trials.
The heads of two of the country’s leading unions, nurses and teachers, were arrested and jailed. They went on a 9-day hunger strike, and were joined by dozens of other demonstrators who were imprisoned for peaceful protests. According to reputable human rights groups, prisoners have been tortured and otherwise abused in prison, where they have little access to lawyers or even family members.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s neighbor, sent several thousand troops across the short causeway that separates the two nations. The Gulf Cooperation Council also dispatched troops from the United Arab Emirates. These forces are working with Bahraini police and soldiers to quell any further uprisings – yet the uprisings persist.
The King and his family are Sunni Arabs. Most of the rest of Bahrain’s population is Shia. The Shia complain that they are discriminated against in every facet of Bahraini life – frozen out of the better jobs and housing in better neighborhoods. The Royal family denies the charge.
Through this ordeal, most of the so-called international community – including the United States – has been dead silent. Its posture has been 180 degrees from its actions in Libya.
There are a few reasons. First, Bahrain is of strategic important to the US, which houses its Fifth Fleet there. Second, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are joined at the hip, and the US moves very cautiously when its actions might offend the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is important to the US because its Sunni population presents a counter-balance to Iran’s Shia majority. Bahrain has complained that Iran is secretly providing resources to the protesters.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince met recently with a number of State Department officials and with President Obama in the Oval Office. He expressed worry that Bahrain’s image was being damaged and said he feared the impact on the country’s tourism business.
The King has appointed an independent committee to look into the violence, but its report is not yet complete.
No doubt, Bahrain’s new PR team has its work cut out for it. What do PR firms customarily do with high profile clients with deeply tarnished “images?” They 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 designed to reassure the world – and especially the tourist trade – that peace has been restored and all is well in the Kingdom. They might produce a film about Bahrain as An attractive tourist destination. They might sponsor intellectual symposia and high profile awards; I’m sure the world would welcome The First Annual Bahrain Human Rights Award. It will of course be judged by a distinguished panel of journalists, intellectuals, statesmen and human rights defenders. And of course there will be an award dinner with a keynote speaker of impeccable reputation, who has been convinced that Bahrain is aggressively laying the groundwork for an inclusive democratic society.
All this may also succeed in reassuring 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.
The ensuing war of the press releases may help determine whether “the engineering of consent” – the phrase used by the father of PR to define this form of art – will 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 very limited change can be made in people’s attitudes until there are substantial and well-communicated changes in the policies that caused the problems in the first place.
Only the most powerful public relations practitioners have the clout to effect policy changes; their customary role is to “sell” existing policies to the stakeholders. Often, when public relations people inject themselves into the policy arena with suggestions for improvements, their clients ignore them.
In any event, those policy changes haven’t visited Bahrain as yet. If they do, it will be a victory, not for the public relations practitioners, but for Bahrain.