Blackwater's PR blitz doesn't change underlying problems

So Blackwater USA, creator of the most notorious mercenary army in decades, is trying to clean up its image.

So Blackwater USA, creator of the most notorious mercenary army in decades, is trying to clean up its image.The success or failure of this maneuver could be a test of whether PR appearances carry as much weight as actual acts.

Blackwater has gained its riches in large part by supplying what it calls private security services in Iraq, most notably protection for important people. The company may be best known, however, for gunning down 17 Iraqis last month in what it called a street battle, but what that barely functioning nation's government called an attack on civilians who weren't there to fight. The incident was one of too many in which American-paid "contractors," as their employers and government officials prefer to call them, have killed Iraqi civilians with, so far, apparent legal impunity.

Now, it's only fair to note that this particular outfit is doing an extremely tough job under horrible conditions. But it's also clear that Blackwater has gone way over the line in its behavior. The Bush administration's utter lack of oversight, or more accurately, its tacit approval, has compounded the situation.

Despite the image hit the company has taken, it's deploying tenacious PR. Getting the media to adopt the word "contractors," as if these weapon-laden folks were driving their heavily armored SUVs to home-remodeling jobs in the Baghdad suburbs, has been one effective and ongoing tactic.

But the September killings required a more personal touch. The company's CEO appeared stern-jawed before Congress, where Blackwater was mostly defended by Republicans who would rather go down with the Bush ship than show any whiff of independence (or honor), and he easily cowed the Democrats whose political cowardice includes the unwillingness to demand straight answers to simple questions.

Then Blackwater agreed to some TV appearances and newspaper interviews with journalists who, by and large, didn't push too hard, either. Meanwhile, count on The Wall Street Journal Editorial page and other right-wing journals to pooh-pooh essentially untrammeled mercenary violence as the natural, well, messiness of war. Oh, and change the corporate logo.

As The New York Times reported last week, "The well-armed men remain, but the company's roughneck logo - a bear's paw print in a red crosshairs, under lettering that looks to have been ripped from a fifth of Jim Beam - has undergone a publicity-conscious, corporate scrubbing." The story quoted a graphic design expert who, apparently without irony, explained, "The subtle changes mean everything here, by eliminating the scope of a sniper's rifle." If that's subtle, imagine what an obvious change would look like.

What's the effect of all this? If a thug wears a tutu, is he a dancer? Not unless he could dance before.

The PR blitz could work if the media and Congress continue with their typical fecklessness. And don't underestimate the short attention span of the American public. Pathetically, serious news seems to give way, every time, to the latest celebrity mischief.
Ultimately, Blackwater reflects its employer's culture. No amount of amorally clever PR will change that.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People and director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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