ANALYSIS: Political PR - Libya has a long way to go for positive spin/The Libyan government has struggled to find a global PR network to promote Gadhafi’s regime. Is the dictator’s image beyond repair or could some grassroots PR do the tri

These days, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi prefers to be photographed wearing a caftan than the full military regalia and mirror shades of old.

These days, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi prefers to be photographed wearing a caftan than the full military regalia and mirror shades of old.

These days, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi prefers to be photographed

wearing a caftan than the full military regalia and mirror shades of


Reviled by the US government, Gadhafi now enjoys the public support of

one of the world’s most respected political figures, Nelson Mandela. He

is leaving behind his days as a fiery revolutionary and beginning to

settle into the role of the elder statesman.

Any takers?

He is building bridges with the West, and the Libyan government wants to

capitalize on the detente with the UK and the United Nations by spinning

some positive coverage for Gadhafi’s regime. However, finding a PR

agency willing to take on the work has proved a little difficult.

International Public Relations (IPR), a Dubai-based Shandwick affiliate,

was approached by the Libyans to take on the task of publicizing a

special meeting of the Organization of African Unity - the African

equivalent of the G8 group of nations - in Libya next month.

When bidding for the business, IPR - which has not been hired - decided

it needed the help of an international network and sought out an agency

prepared to take it on. In all, PRWeek’s sister UK publication has found

five UK agencies and one US outfit that were approached. Most of them

declined to be named and none of them took on the account.

Apparently, Strategic Profile International (SPI), a UK-based public

affairs outfit which specializes in profiling developing countries and

already runs the British Libyan Business Group’s secretariat, is the

only agency happy to have Libya as a client. SPI, in a separate

initiative to the one IPR was approached for, is organizing a

parliamentary delegation to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the

revolution that brought Gadhafi to power.

But Nick Archer, UK public affairs director at Edelman, which has just

turned away the Indonesian government, asks rhetorically: ’With an image

that dented, can you do anything with it?’

Ian Lindsley, director and UK head of Burson-Marsteller’s public affairs

brand BKSH, says there is only so much PR can achieve, and that Libya

needs to make big changes, such as introducing democratic reforms,

before the spin doctors can start work.

Burson is not averse to representing foreign governments per se. Indeed,

among those the agency has worked for are Chile and Bahrain. But,

Lindsley says, ’the thing with Libya is that it is so beyond the pale

The question in lobbying 10 years ago was whether you worked for South

Africa. Now it’s Libya and Nigeria. For the pariahs of the world, PR

isn’t going to help them in the short term. Any PR agency that thinks it

can is kidding itself.’

For a US agency, accepting the work would have meant breaking the law,

as trade with Libya is still banned in the US.

Hill & Knowlton’s UK business was one of those that turned Libya


H&K accepted work from the government of Angola during the civil war in

the mid-1980s and early 90s, Turkey and Brazil in the mid-90s and Zambia

last year.

But Edward Bickham, deputy chairman and MD of corporate and public

affairs at H&K, says he was reluctant to get involved with Libya before

the conclusion of the PanAm flight 103/Lockerbie trial, which is

unlikely to begin before the first quarter of next year. Bickham

believes PR can help Libya, but adds it is a huge task. ’Libya has an

awfully long way to go, a long period of maverick behavior to live


Ian Rumgay, Shandwick international client services director, says it is

difficult to categorically state which regimes his company should or

should not work for, and that much depends on what the agency is being

asked to do.

Rumgay recommends applying the test set down by the UK-based Advertising

Standards Authority - is what you are being asked to do legal, honest

and truthful? Clients Shandwick has worked for include The Royal

Cambodian government, Brunei, the Philippines, Cyprus, Tunisia and the


But SPI account executive Marcus Courage goes further, thoroughly

rejecting the concept of pariah nations, and saying that grass roots

contacts continue even when nations are not officially dealing with each


Beyond Gadhafi and oil

SPI has presented Libya with a long-term image-building plan, but has

yet to hear back. Courage believes it is at the grassroots level that PR

can do most to foster better relations between Libya and the West.

’The first thing we would want to do is humanize the face of Libya’s

ordinary citizens,’ he says, adding that the only things most people

know about Libya are that its leader is Colonel Gadhafi and that it is

oil-rich. Any PR operation would need to steer the focus away from


He suggests, creating a ’constituency’ of support in the UK through a

series of cultural, political, academic and even sporting exchanges.

But as Bickham points out, the UK may not be the best place to start a

PR campaign. Libya has closer links with other European nations,

including Italy, with which it is building a pipeline to carry gas

between the two countries. ’They should be looking to lower-hanging

fruit like the Italians, the French and the Spanish,’ he suggests.

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