Press Relations: Can PR bring merit to mercenary actions? - Mercenary organisation Sandline International used a PR consultancy to stage a recent news conference and the signs are that other similar groups are realising the benefits of PR

Some may remember a 1970s action movie called The Wild Geese in which a rag-tag assortment of ex-soldiers, led by Roger Moore, formed a mercenary group to fight on the African continent.

Some may remember a 1970s action movie called The Wild Geese in

which a rag-tag assortment of ex-soldiers, led by Roger Moore, formed a

mercenary group to fight on the African continent.



The film summed up the popular image of mercenaries at the time;

dangerous characters who were taking advantage of the crisis that

followed the end of colonial rule in Africa. However, since the end of

the Cold War it seems the mercenary has been undergoing an image

overhaul.



The slickly-handled press conference for the return of former British

Colonel Tim Spicer, Falklands veteran and director of British-based

’military consultancy’ Sandline International, after being arrested in

Papua New Guinea, is just the latest sign that mercenaries are coming

out of the shadows.



Sandline confirms it used a professional PR agency to organise it - Sara

Pearson Associates - but claims that this is the first time it has done

so. ’We don’t have a proactive PR strategy,’ says a spokesman. ’In our

business, governments and buyers of our services know who the providers

are.’



Yet the evidence of the past six months suggests that mercenaries are

becoming as adept at using PR as they are guns.



Articles in several newspapers have reported the increasing influence of

slickly-run private armies on conflicts in the developing world. The

Guardian and the Independent recently profiled Executive Outcomes. Made

up largely of South African ex-soldiers, EO is what might be called the

market leader. Its corporate brochure claims to provide ’a highly

professional and confidential military advisory service to legitimate

governments’ and ’the most professional training packages available to

armed forces’.



Although both papers questioned the wider connections of such groups,

there are those who are becoming increasingly worried about the high

profile they are achieving.



’What we’re seeing is some positive press coverage and we’re concerned,’

says Will McMahon co-ordinator at Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which

is pushing for tighter legal restrictions on the actions of mercenary

groups.



’These groups are aware that they need PR to achieve their activities

and are positioning themselves as soldiers of fortune looking after the

unfortunates,’ he says.



McMahon believes that the reality of their work is far less noble.



He points to Sandline International’s work in Papua New Guinea, where it

provided training and military assistance to the government, as a

’classic case’. The government was fighting to retain control of a

closed copper mine against rebel forces who claimed their natural

resources were being exploited, and their land polluted, by a

multinational mining company in collusion with the government.



After an internal military revolt, Spicer was arrested and the whole

affair sparked a public inquiry in PNG into the alleged government

corruption that surrounded hiring the mercenary force. The firearms

charges against Spicer were later dropped.



EO has so far been more fortunate in avoiding such controversy. It was

successful in helping the Angolan government defeat UNITA rebels in 1994

and more recently in restoring order in Sierra Leone. Because of its

work providing military services to diamond-rich African nations

embroiled in civil war - in some cases for an indirect stake in mining

concerns - its members have earned the nickname ’the diamond dogs of

war.’



Whatever their motivation, there is evidence that EO has won support on

the ground in the countries in which they operate. As one Sierra Leonean

ex-patriate believes, at least EO achieved something - which is more

than can be said for the international community.



The Guardian’s investigation in March by journalist Jeremy Harding

showed positive pictures of child combatants rounded up and delivered

into the care of charity workers by EO.



Harding says EO was helpful when approached and gave him access to its

operation in Sierra Leone. He rejects the suggestion that the pictures

were part of a carefully arranged PR stunt, although he acknowledges

Barlow’s media skills describing him as ’a smooth presenter of the

company’s case and a good journalist handler.’



A member of the South African army’s notorious 32nd Battalion in the

1980s, Barlow moved on to military intelligence with another

organisation called the Civil Co-operation Bureau, for which he operated

in southern Africa and Western Europe.



Barlow helped form EO in 1989 and since then it has gained growing

credibility, not only through its association with democratic outcomes

in Angola and Sierra Leone but through its corporate connections.



So how far has EO’s bid for respectability been driven by professional

PR advice? CAAT’s McMahon says: ’I would be amazed if Executive Outcomes

isn’t using a PR agency.



EO staff services manager Chris Riba confirms it does use a PR

consultant to ’test’ its PR strategy. He named him aas Brian Streak, a

’PR boffin’ in Johannesburg. However, Barlow is EO chief spokesman.



He confirmed that EO was increasingly concerned with its public image

and is shortly to set up its own Internet site.



Sandline’s use of SPA for the London press conference shows, they too

are not averse to taking PR advice when they feel they need it.



Asked whether she had any qualms about working for a mercenary

organisation, agency managing director Sara Pearson said: ’It depends on

how you define mercenary. The press perception is not necessarily an

accurate interpretation.’ She added that Spicer’s need for outside PR

help following his return was a ’one-off case’, not an on-going

requirement.



Only time will tell if she is right.



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