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?

Public Diplomacy move by US Military: Rendon Group out.

September 14, 2009

In an earlier post the controversial vetting of embedded journalists by the Rendon Group was discussed.  There was concern that the evaluation of positive, negative, and neutral stories, relative to US missions, was being used as part of the background check for vetting embedded journalists.  Rendon Group had the vetting contract.  Here is part of the story from Stars and Stripes:

“’The Bagram Regional Contracting Center intends to execute a termination of the Media Analyst contract,’ belonging to The Rendon Group, said Col. Wayne Shanks, chief of public affairs for International Security Assistance Forces–Afghanistan. 

The announcement follows a week of revelations by Stars and Stripes in which military public affairs officers who served in Afghanistan said that as recently as 2008 they had used reporter profiles compiled by The Rendon Group, a private public relations firm in Washington, D.C., to decide whether to grant permission to embed with troops on the battlefield.”

“The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone. As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, in an e-mail sent Sunday to Stars and Stripes. http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=64481

At least two journalists were denied access due to the vetting.  However, it was stated that the reason was accuracy of their reporting or treatment of confidential materials, not the favorability scores.  Read more about the disqualification of journalists at http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=64449.

Here is Rendon’s explanation of the coding for the vetting:

“We are happy to provide more information with regard to recent reports that discuss the scope and nature of our support to the Public Affairs Office of US Forces in Afghanistan. The Rendon Group (TRG) competed for and was awarded a contract in 2009 to support US Military Public Affairs in Afghanistan. As part of the media analysis requirement for the contract, TRG provides relational analysis of news content specifically focused on themes of critical importance defined as US interests — stability and security, counter insurgency, operational results — to name a few. The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters. The analysis is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist’s inquiries and TRG does not make recommendations as to who the military should or should not interview.

The media analysis provided at the request of the public affairs office, was constructed from open source information with the intent to enumerate and quantify key aspects (topics, subjects) of coverage relevant to the Afghanistan mission. Any reference to positive, negative or neutral in our analysis is derived by quantifying the content in relation to mission objectives. Example: Positive to Neutral coverage could mean that it contains stories that are either neutral to or positive to a specific military objective (stability, security, captures, etc). Conversely, Neutral to Negative coverage could indicate that content in stories were negative in relation to mission objectives (kidnapping, suicide bombing, etc). This is commonly referred to as content analysis and is a key component of media analysis.” http://www.rendon.com/comment_afghanistan.php



Questions to Consider

  1.  Do you agree or disagree with the military’s decision to end the contract?  Justify your answer.
  2. What problems arise from the evaluation system even if no reporters were disqualified for the favorability scores?
  3. What are the ethical implications for this situation for US military public affairs?
  4. How does this case related to reputation management?
  5. What seems to be the key elements of Rendon Group’s explanation of the coding?
  6. What else might Rendon Group do to further address this problem?

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.” http://bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=2436B6EB9392483ABB0A373E8B823A24&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68&tier=4&id=25DDD0D6845A4E478E5D5C1AF8873842


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. http://www.stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=64348   


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.” http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf

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.” http://www.rendon.com/about.php



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. (http://eccentricstar.typepad.com/public_diplomacy_weblog_n/2006/01/us_uses_times_s.html)

 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.’” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/12/AR2006051201879.html

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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/27/us-mission-ticker-cuba


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?

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