Opinion: No beauty in PR for the Mugabe whitewash

Whenever I see the phrase 'it's just a PR tactic', I normally groan inwardly at the injustice. But this week I couldn't help but agree with the analysis of the British-based editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper, Wilf Mbanga, when he slammed a UK firm for acting as 'PR people for Mugabe'.

In fact the company responsible for perpetrating a nauseating piece of whitewash on behalf of Mugabe's pariah government was not a PR firm but a Nottingham-based events company.

Miss Tourism World describes itself as a non-political organisation whose principle policy is to 'simply promote tourism across the world and in particular highlight those parts of the world in need of exposure on a worldwide stage'. This is achieved by hosting a series of heavily sponsored and televised beauty pageants, complete with carefully stage-managed photocalls of the beauty finalists at various tourist locations.

The first time that Zimbabwe hosted one of these pageants was in February in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Miss Tourism World's 'lovelies' were filmed and photographed in The Lion Park and enjoying elephant rides, well away from the hundreds of thousands in Harare whose lives were being bulldozed out of existence.

With claims of a 30 per cent rise in tourism year on year, the £1.1m fee paid by the government to the organisers was probably regarded as a fairly good investment. In the meantime, four million Zimbabweans face starvation, and the country faces expulsion from the IMF for non-payment of loans.

But Mugabe was so pleased with the results, in PR terms, of the first event that he is now preparing to cough up again, so that next February 100 beauty finalists can parade down the catwalk at the Harare Convention Centre in a bid to realign Zimbabwe's 'tourism image'.

Feeling nothing but revulsion for the whole exercise, I was relieved that I couldn't find a PR agency involved in this sordid escapade.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times. Too often PR folk have been likened to lawyers, and inadvisably some have used the legal justification that everyone has the right to representation to excuse taking fees from rogue regimes, companies and individuals.

But more often these days, communications firms define themselves more by the companies and industries they will not associate with. Surely Zimbabwe's cruel and corrupt government must top that list.

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