Taliban using Public Relations in Afghanistan: Worth a Look

Critics of Edward Bernays like to note that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, used the writings of Bernays to help build the Third Reich.  The focus is on the knowledge that Goebbels had a copy of Crystallizing Public Opinion.  Keep in mind it was not an autographed copy nor did Bernays ever consult with Goebbels.  Bernays was Jewish and was dismayed his work was used by Nazi’s.  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Edward_Bernays. However, the story illustrates that fact that public relations theory, once written, can be used by anyone.  Of course the same holds true for medicine or any other form of knowledge.  Yet when unsavory groups use public relations, the industry as a whole seems to get tainted.

The New York Times reported in late January of 2010 on a public relations operation by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The focus was on how the Taliban were trying to build greater public support by softening its reputation.  The Taliban were using a new code of conduct that showed their gentler side.  Here are some of the changes:

There is some evidence that the new code was being used but many of the Taliban were still not abiding by these more civil rule of engagement.  However, the Taliban have a history of cruelty, drug trafficking, and extreme violence that served to create their current negative reputation.

So why the need to change a reputation. Analysts claim that the Taliban are trying to win support at home and abroad with this new reputation.  If the war is a long term affair, the Taliban will need additional support for their cause.  It is hard to win support either at home or abroad when your reputation is for violence and cruelty.   The Taliban are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan so the old reputation is well earned.  The public relations effort is in part public diplomacy aimed at an external audience as well as an internal effort.

NATO feels they are at a public relations disadvantage when competing with the Taliban.  “The Taliban can shape the narrative about attacks sometimes before NATO public affairs even puts out a statement. Unlike the NATO press machine, the Taliban are willing to give details, and while some are patently exaggerated or wrong, others have just enough elements of truth that they cannot be entirely ignored” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/world/asia/21taliban.html?pagewanted=1).  NATO has a time lag and a concern for accuracy that does not limit Taliban public relations.  It should be noted that being close to the truth is an effective way to spread rumors.  Good rumors (ones that spread) have some element in them that makes them seem believable.  Truth and accuracy should matter but being just believable enough can result in a message spreading and appearing to be true.

The Taliban are using a wide variety of tactics and channels in their public relations operation.  Their action have used word-of-mouth, cellphones, and the Internet, all of which are staples of viral campaigns.  Not long ago the Taliban denounced the Internet as evil but now the Taliban are posting their own videos to the Internet.  The same viral techniques used to promote products are being used to promote the Taliban’s new reputation.  It should be noted that the Taliban efforts are not the simple image projection of past public diplomacy efforts.  Oppressive regimes often hire public relations firms to win them positive media coverage without ever changing policies.  The Taliban have at least tried to make some policy changes that serve as a basis for the reputation management effort.  If civilian casualties do decrease from these changes, that is positive change.  Still there are many other reasons to dislike the Taliban, their methods, and their ideas.

Public relations has a body of knowledge that anyone can draw upon for their use.  There is no high council who decides who can and cannot use public relations.  Even though it may not be great for the field, the Taliban engaging in public relations is a reality. At least no U.S. public relations firm has agreed to represent them.  We could just claim the Taliban are engaged in propaganda not public relations.  However, that would be disingenuous bordering on ethical.  Some of the actions legitimately qualify as public relations while some are bastardizations of public relations that should be condemned (fabricating stories for instance).  One could note that the Taliban practice medicine as well as public relations.  Does that make medicine “bad?”  A profession cannot control who uses their knowledge base.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Why do the Taliban’s actions qualify as public relations?  Public diplomacy?
  2. From the article, what ethical concerns emerge from the Taliban public relations efforts?
  3. Why might practitioners be concerned about the Taliban practicing public relations?
  4. Is it fair to compare the Taliban practicing medicine to practicing public relations?  Why or why not?
  5. Why is it important that the new code and changed policies to be linked to the Taliban reputation management effort?
  6. What advice could you give NATO for improving their effort to combat Taliban public relations?
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