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.
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
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.