Countries: To PR or Not to PR 18

This is a guest post by Cathy Pittham, Managing Director, Racepoint Group Europe

A recent article, “PR Firms Make London World Capital of Reputation Laundering,” in the August 4th edition of The Guardian has been getting a lot of attention lately.  The piece talks about the increasing amount of public affairs work being done by global PR firms in support of countries such as Russia, Sudan and Rwanda – the last being a Racepoint Group client.

This article challenges the reader to think about the kinds of countries that get reputation assistance in Western media and policy markets.  If decisions were made strictly based on assessments by NGOs, special interest groups, Western governments and media pundits, many of these countries might not have agencies representing them.  The reality is, however,  that work done for these countries is often the subject of the same kind of practical assessments that Western governments have made in dealing with these countries for decades.

A good example would be prior to the Nixon administration, when no US government had engaged with China since the 1947 revolution.  The widely held view was that it was not appropriate to deal with a Communist regime during the Cold War.  Yet Nixon had a vision for a free China based on the notion that opening dialogue and promoting capitalism would generate Western style freedoms.  This, in turn, led to an opening of business channels, locating dozens of Western PR firms in the country and a détente that has cemented partnerships between the East and West that, 40 years ago, were unimaginable.

While the jury is still out on whether the promotion of capitalism in China will yield a democracy, what is undeniable is that it has led to a vastly improved lifestyle for hundreds of millions of people.

The argument that countries that have policies we might not like are not entitled to communications representation is a flawed perspective.  Opening channels of communication ensures that influence can occur in both directions and provide better balance.  And often this communication is in support of agendas that are strongly in favour of the interests of the citizens of those countries.  For example, enabling countries in Africa to promote their agendas in the West gives them access to new capital and investment to create jobs, drive technological innovation and ensure a better future for the wider population.

Our work in Rwanda focuses on positioning the country with potential investors around the world, with the international tourist industry and with the Diaspora in order to reconnect Rwandans everywhere.  We also promote the extraordinary lessons that the Rwandans have learned in rebuilding their country following the tragic genocide of sixteen years ago – a lesson that can teach ‘The West’ (who largely turned their backs on Rwanda during the genocide) a thing or two.

We have focused in particular on the possibilities extended by digital communications.  We have built and launched two online Rwandan communities (Rwanda Fact Check and Friends of Rwanda) that highlight key news and facts – serving to correct misinformation that emerges elsewhere. This is supported by engagement via Twitter, Facebook, FlickR and YouTube. These resources allow us to educate and inform people beyond Rwanda’s boundaries about the challenges and opportunities for rebuilding a country from democratic, judicial, cultural and economic standpoints.

Since September last year, we have increased discussions on Rwanda tourism by 183%, on the economy by 129%.  Our two communities online receive approximately 2,000 visitors a month with traffic coming from 21 different countries.  Our 1,000 Twitter followers include representatives from the media, World Bank, UN and International Finance Corporation among other key stakeholders.

I’m very proud of the work we do for Rwanda.  It encapsulates all the values that differentiate Racepoint Group as an agency.  At all times, we facilitate honest and open dialogue that seeks to balance historic perceptions with true representation of the country as it is today.  The impact and devastation of the genocide Rwanda suffered is always acknowledged.

Applying oversimplified definitions of Western values is not helpful in a world that is much more nuanced and complex.   So, while Mr. Booth’s article suggests one view, in my opinion it lacks the depth of understanding required in assessing such a complex situation.

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