Iraq: the hardest battlefield of all

With the US military tendering for a multi-million-dollar contract for communications support in Iraq, Alex Black assesses the scale of the task in hand

It has been described as the ‘PR challenge of the decade': convincing the people of Iraq that, despite the daily death toll sometimes topping 100, the US-led coalition forces can help get the country into a state where a democratically elected Iraqi government can rule over a peaceful and stable country.

Such work can hardly be done on the cheap. Two years ago, Bell Pottinger won a £3.2m contract to promote democracy in Iraq (PRWeek, 11 March 2004). Exactly 12 months ago, Washington DC-based The Rendon Group won a £3.4m, 12-month contract to provide comms support for operations in the country.

Rendon's contract is due to expire on 15 September, and US Central Command (Centcomm) has just issued a request for proposals for a new contract (PRWeek, 8 September).

Mission impossible?
This time, a £10.6m, two-year contract is up for grabs. But what will the winning agency actually be doing? Centcomm's pitch document includes the tasks: ‘Assessments of the tone of coverage and effectiveness of messaging; research presentations to commanders; long-term strategic comms; development of material such as print columns and press releases.'

Then there is the media monitoring of Iraqi, pan-Arabic, international and US sources, and media training for coalition forces staff. Website development has also been included.

You do not have to delve too deeply into recent press coverage of Iraq to see the task is fraught with difficulty. While relatively media-savvy Iraqi urbanites are getting used to what a ‘free press' might mean, for the subsistence farmers living under tribal rules in the countryside, the concept is as alien as space travel.

The threat of physical harm to its personnel notwithstanding, the agency (or agencies - some agency heads have privately admitted to the US media that such a job might require a pooling of resources) will have several major problems. First, the Iraqi media are polarised and unpredictable, and the editorial stance of the main outlets is often too strong to attract a diverse audience.

Al-Sabah is an Arabic and English daily, but its funding comes from the US and it is seen as a mouthpiece of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Az-Zaman is an Arabic daily founded by a former press secretary to Saddam Hussein. Al-Ahali and Iraq Today, meanwhile, are weeklies, and seen as generally pro-American.

When it comes to broadcast media, those Iraqis with regular access to a TV have never known such a wide range of channels. Gone is the endless footage of Saddam's speeches and military parades. Now Al-Sharqiya broadcasts the popular Caricatura, which even runs satires about children kidnapping adults. After the fall of Saddam, the CPA set up Al Iraqiya, but many see it as too American.

Instead, many tune in to the fiercely anti-American Arabic satellite network Al-Arabiya (recently shut down for one month by the Iraqi prime minister for ‘capitalising on the footage of victims of terrorist attacks'), and, of course, the internationally renowned Al Jazeera.

As you would expect, the internet in Iraq is crucial, and news sites and blogs spring up as quickly as their authors can get online.

Gaining trust
The overarching challenge  is winning the confidence of the Iraqi people. There is widespread mistrust of
official declarations, and foreigners are generally treated with suspicion: westerners are continually on the alert for suicide bombers.

In media terms, one main reason for this is the US's ‘joint psychological operations', or ‘psyops'. Three months before Rendon was hired, Lincoln Group (‘formed to pursue private sector opportunities in Iraq', according to its website - see box) won an ‘indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity' comms contract.

Details of what the contract involved were kept secret until late last year, when Lincoln was accused of paying Iraqi papers to run articles ghostwritten by US military officials - something eventually admitted by the Pentagon.

The clandestine nature of the ‘psyops' programme did little to build confidence in media outlets known to have affiliation with the West.

Instead, the new campaign is more likely to involve a more subtle mixture of media relations and confidence-building events at grassroots level.

Whether it can win ‘hearts and minds' is a gamble the US clearly needs to take - and not just for the sake of its own government's reputation. The fact is that the situation on the ground in Iraq remains brutal for those living there - and a comms campaign's impact, however marginal, could well help save lives.

IRAQ: PR AGENCIES IN ACTION

Lincoln Group
Washington-based company co-founded by Christian Bailey (raised in Surrey and educated at Lincoln College, Oxford). In June 2005 it won an ‘indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity' contract reported to be worth up to £57m over five years.

Brief: Rumoured to be involved in the ‘psyops' programme that paid Iraqi media to run positive stories about the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The Rendon Group
Global strategic comms consultancy, also based in Washington. It claims to have worked in 91 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Brief: Strategic communications and wide-ranging media relations. Monitoring of homegrown and foreign media a major part of the contract.

Bell Pottinger
The PR division of Chime Communications.

Brief: In early 2004, it won a contract to be the lead agency in a $5.8m (£3.2m) deal - to oversee a consortium of consultancies promoting democracy ahead of the handover of power to an interim Iraqi authority. At the time, Chime chairman Lord Bell told PRWeek: ‘There is no Arabic word for democracy - they use the word ‘democratier', which is not Arabic. It is certainly a very big communi­cations challenge. It is not going to be easy but it will definitely be rewarding.'

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