Rendon Group gives Public Diplomacy a Bad Name

August 27, 2009

A recent news story revealed more less then positive actions by the public relations agency the Rendon Group.  The Rendon Group has a long a profitable association with the US government.  Its most recent activity was helping to assess journalists to be embedded in Afghanistan.  The Rendon Group reviews stories written by the journalists and classifies the content as positive, negative, or neutral of the military.  US officials say the information is not used to deny access to journalists. 

“The military says no reporter has been turned down. ‘We have not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography,’ said Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a public affairs officer with U.S. Forces Afghanistan in Kabul. ‘It’s so we know with whom we’re working,”’reports USAT writer Michael Winter.”


Later US officials said they were considering a change to evaluating if the content of the stories was accurate or not.  Starts and Strips, a US military publication, claims one of its reporters was denied access in Iraq because of one of these story content backgrounds by the Rendon Group.   


But the story brings back unpleasant memories for the Rendon Group as the media and bloggers recall their involvement with the Iraqi National Congress, an ex-patriot opposition group to Saddam Hussein formed in the 1990s.  The concern is that the Iraqi National Congress was and remains a frontgroup built in large part by the Rendon Group.  Moreover, intelligence provided by this group, including weapons of mass destruction, was used to justify the US invasion of Iraq.  However, the evidence was faulty.  The Rendon Group is reported to have trained the members of the Iraqi National Congress on their intelligence.

Many claim the Rendon Group was simply using perception management.  The US Department of Defense defines perception management as follows:

“Actions to convey and/or deny selected information and

indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective

reasoning as well as to intelligence systems and leaders at all levels to influence official

estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the

originator’s objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth

projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations. See

also psychological operations.”

The downside of perception management is that is gets confused with public diplomacy.  However, public diplomacy has or should have concern for the truth while perception management is about results, not truth.  It is part of information warfare so everything is fair game.  Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is aligning with public relations and should be based on truth—the ends should not justify the means.  The actions of the Rendon Group raises ethical concerns as it gives an insight into a rather dark and disturbing application of public diplomacy and public relations.


Here is how the Rendon Group describes itself:

“The Rendon Group’s expertise is based on 25 years of political and communications consulting experience, a proven approach to media analysis, and demonstrated success implementing imaginative and multilayered public relations initiatives.

To date, we have worked in 91 countries planning and managing strategic and tactical communications programs across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The global experience of our seasoned staff maximizes the precision of our analysis and the value of our counsel.

The Rendon Group office in Washington, DC, operates a 24/7 media monitoring watch-center in support of both clients and TRG personnel working on location worldwide.”



Questions to Consider

  1.  How is the Iraqi National Congress similar and different from the Citizens for Free Kuwait?
  2. Why might people confuse perception management with public diplomacy or public relations?
  3. What is the danger of allowing the ends to justify the means?
  4. How is perceptions management similar and different to public relations?
  5. Why would people be concerned about how the Rendon Group was evaluating reporters?
  6. Why might accuracy be a better evaluative tool when doing background checks on journalists?

Ending the Electronic Billboard Pain in the Ano

August 14, 2009

The US does not have an embassy in Cuba.   The US broke diplomatic ties with Cuba Jan. 3, 1961. The US does have the United States Interest Section Havana, Cuba.  It is a in a very large building as both “looks” and “acts” like a embassy.  On Jan. 16, 2006, the windows became an electronic billboard are started running messages for the Cuban people to see.  Most were quotations about freedom from such historic figures as Martin Luther King Jr. (the first message to go up) and Abraham Lincoln.  There were even some funny criticism from the likes of George Burns. (

 The billboard is a form of public diplomacy as it delivers messages from a government to citizens of another country.  The parts for the electronic billboard were smuggled into the US facility adding intrigue to this public diplomacy.  Fidel Castro was not amused.  Construction equipment appeared shortly after the sign began running and blocked the view of the sign.  The idea was for people to be able to see when they were on a heavily trafficked seaside highway.  The construction equipment was used to build a bank of 148 flags to obscure the sign.  People need to be within a block to really see and read the message as a result of the flag barrier.   Here is part of a news story about the dispute:

“U.S. diplomats acknowledge that the flags have limited their audience, even posting a message that read: ‘Who fears the billboard? Why block it?’ But even if only a few people see the billboard and talk about its messages, something has been accomplished, Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

‘Castro gets angered by the truth, yet they call their revolution a revolution of ideas. So, we’re battling with ideas,’ Watnik said. ‘The people of Cuba aren’t able to enjoy freedom of expression — we’re bringing them positive messages from the free world.’”

In July of 2009, the US turned off the sign.  The sign going dark was an example of the steps being made to improve relations between the US and Cuba.  It should be noted that the sign had limitations because it was not programmed for the Spanish language lacking accents and tildes.  A favor among the media and comedians like Jon Stewart was the not having a tilde turned “año” meaning year into “ano” meaning anus.  Whatever the flaws, electronic billboard public diplomacy was over.


Questions to Consider

  1.  What public diplomacy objectives could be pursued through an electronic billboard (Chapter 14)?
  2. How does the case illustrate the difficulties language creates when public relations goes international?
  3. How do the flags illustrate concerns with the marketplace of ideas?
  4. How did the removal of the sign serve as public diplomacy?
  5. Are they any ethical issues with the original use of the electronic billboard?
  6. Would you describe the creation of the sign as more public relations that public diplomacy?  Why or why not?

Goddess + Meat Sandwich = Very Bad Communication Idea

August 6, 2009

The Hindu religion has a number of deities and all have importance significance for followers.  One of the deities is Lakshmi, the goddess for wealth and beauty.  Lakshmi is depicted as a female who has a golden skins, four arms, and sits on a lotus flower.  Her festival month is October.  Lakshmi is a household goddess for Hindu families and she is a favorite among women.  This is a very basic overview of Lakshmi informed by information from two webs sites:



Hinduism is an ancient religion and the third largest religion in the world.  Non-Hindus may know two things about the religion (1) karma, a principle of cause and effect and (2) it teaches vegetarianism.  Not all Hindus are vegetarian but many are.  Historically, US fast food chains have had difficulty in India because of a failure to appreciate importance the Hindu religion places on vegetarianism.  A few small riots occurred when people discovered a restaurant was not frying meat and vegetables in separate frying vats even thought that was the claim by the chain.  Put another way, the Hindu religion does shape culture in a country like India and should be respected.

Consider this recent advertising campaign by Burger King in Spain.  The add shows Lakshmi sitting on top of a meat sandwich.  Even if you have a  limited understanding of Hinduism, does this seem like a good idea?  Some people at Burger King did and protest messages were sent to Burger King.  Burger offered the following response:

“’We are apologising because it wasn’t our intent to offend anyone,’ Denise T Wilson, spokesman of Burger King said in an email when asked about the demand of the Hindu community that the company need to apologise for running an advertisement which its leaders said was offensive to their religion.

‘Burger King Corporation (BKC) values and respects all of its guests as well as the communities we serve. This in-store advertisement was running to support only local promotion for three restaurants in Spain and was not intended to offend anyone,’ Wilson said.

‘Out of respect for the Hindu community, the limited-time advertisement has been removed from the restaurants,’ Wilson said a day after the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) in a statement asked Burger King to remove the offensive advertisement.”

There has been some speculation that the controversy was created on purpose.  Earlier in 2009 Burger King pulled an advertisement over complaints over how it was displaying the Mexican flag.  Some have suggested Burger King is purposefully creating controversial advertisements to generate publicity for the fast food chain.

Questions to Consider:

  1.  How does this case illustrate globalization and its effect on public relations (Chapter 14)?
  2. Some call the situation a crisis.  According to Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) and other principles of crisis communication from Chapter 12, was this an effective response?  Why or why not?
  3. What are the ethical ramifications (Chapter 2) for PR if Burger King purposefully offended people to create publicity?
  4. If you were in a Burger King meeting where the message was presented, what arguments would have made for not running the message?
  5. Which would be better and why:  having to apologize for a poor advertising choice or realizing a bad communication choice and not taking it?
  6. What actions could be taken to prevent a repeat of culturally offensive advertisements by Burger King (crisis prevention)?
  7. What possible justifications, if any, can be given for choosing culturally offensive advertisements as a PR strategy?

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