Taliban using Public Relations in Afghanistan: Worth a Look

January 22, 2010

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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Quality Control for Public Relations still an Issue: A Bristol Palin PR Firm?

January 7, 2010

Edward Bernays was one of the voiced calling for some type control over entry into the field of public relations.  He even called for licensing practitioners.  The idea was that licensing would help to make public relations a profession.  Here is a excerpt from his proposed bill to requiring licensing of PR.  For more information on the topic visit the Museum of Public Relations (http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html):

 “On April 7, 1992, a public hearing before a Massachusetts Joint House and Senate Committee on Government Regulations will address the licensing of public relations practitioners. No legal standard for public relations practitioners currently exists. Anyone can hang up a shingle as a public relations practitioner and often does.

The status quo produces two victims: (1) clients or employers of public relations practitioners who usually have no standard by which to measure qualifications and (2) qualified practitioners whose positions are demeaned by those lacking the experience, education, skills and integrity that true professionals have long labored to attain. Equally important, the public interest is poorly served when those who heavily influence the channels of communication and action in a media-dominated society are inept or worse.

To protect the public and their professions, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and other professionals sought licensing and registration from the English Parliament in the early 1880s. Professionalism was adopted soon after within the United States. This action protected both the professionals and the public from the malfeasance of impostors.

Voluntary registration as that proposed by Bill #374 would not infringe on First Amendment rights. Persons passing the licensing exam would be entitled to use a special legalized title that would denote mastery of a body of knowledge and adherence to a recognized code of ethics.

The legislative action I urge is in the public interest. The academic requirements for the new profession of public relations will not affect any presently active practitioner. Public relations curricula in many universities will be modified to meet the criteria of state boards or examiners.

Edward L. Bernays” 

While many in the field may view licensing as radical, most agree there are benefits to having some standards for the field.  These standards include training.  Consider how PRSA has an accreditation based on skills and knowledge (there are courses to prepare for the test).  As the PRSA web site note:  “Our profession is among the most misunderstood and criticized. Through their high professional and ethical standards, Accredited professionals contribute to greater understanding of public relations as a vital management function, and undermine those who would refer to our craft as spin, our professionals as flacks, and our currency as misrepresentation and disinformation” (http://www.prsa.org/Learning/Accreditation/).   Moreover, PRSA is active in efforts to improve college public relations curriculum as part of the effort be create a profession through knowledgeable practitioners.

Education, including accreditation, is one way to build public relations’ credibility as a “profession.”  Profession is in quotation marks because there are debates over what constitutes a profession and whether or not public relations meets those criteria.  Profession is used here in common usage rather than a technical term.  Bernays complained “Anyone can hang up a shingle and become a … public relations practitioner” http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html.  He meant that as a criticism, not a compliment.

On Jan. 7, 2010, a story begins to spread about Sarah Palin’s 19 year old daughter Bristol forming a public relations firm.  It appeared in traditional media, trade sites (http://www.bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=53D88D74A99849C185183B336A3F3B02&tier=4&id=7EB04417671A4C3FAA4988D823377F05&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68), and blogs.  One observer said she should be prepared because she grew up in a family that was using public relations http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html.  That is a very weak argument.  If your parents were accountants, does that make you’re an accountant?  Bernays pointed is proved if a 19 year-old with no training in public relations can form a public relations firm.  Where is the check on quality?

Idea that the business is a public relations firm is implied in the documents filed by Palin.  Her attorney noted the BSMP LLC and is a single-member limited liability corporation includes lobbying, public relations, and political consulting.  Bristol Palin is an ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation, a pro-abstinence group.  It was observed that single-member limited liability corporations are used when a person starts receiving income from various sources because it offers tax advantages http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/media_people/bristol_palin_launching_pr_firm_147936.asp

So the business may never really be a public relations practice.  But still, it raises questions about how easy it is for anyone to call what they do public relations.  Those calling themselves public relations include company designed to be paid for editing Wikipedia content.  Public relations can be harmed when untrained practitioners inflict themselves on unknowing clients.

Question to Consider

  1.  What are the arguments against licensing of public relations practitioners?
  2. Why might accreditation be an effective alternative to licensing practitioners?
  3. What is needed to make accreditation more meaningful in public relations and business in general?
  4. Why is it dangerous to the public and the practice to have poorly trained individuals acting as public relations practitioners?
  5. What does PRSA recommend as the curriculum for a public relations major?
  6. How is this case an example of treating public relations as just publicity?

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