WASHINGTON: Overseas political opposition groups are increasingly seeking to raise their legitimacy and sell their agendas in their home countries through communications outreach to US politicians, media, think tanks, and other influential audiences, according to industry insiders.
Recent work by US public affairs firms on behalf of overseas entities and individuals include TD International, working with subcontractors Glover Park Group (GPG) and Dezenhall Resources, on behalf of the Ukraine's Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko party. The party's leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, is the former prime minister of the Ukraine and one of the leaders of the so-called "Orange Revolution" there.
In addition, Burson-Marsteller and partner BKSH & Associates are now working on behalf of Armenia, in particular for defense minister Serge Sarkisian, who plans to run for president in the upcoming election there. As previously reported in PRWeek, Burson and partners are also working on behalf of the Pakistan Opposition Party, led by the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who currently lives in exile.
In all of these contracts, meetings arranged with government officials, members of Congress, the media, and others are intended to emphasize the individual's or his or her party's desire to promote greater political freedom and human rights in their countries. They also often include a focus on "energy security."
TD International partner Ronald Slimp noted that in Tymoshenko's recent tour of the US, meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others addressed the tumultuous business dealings of Russia and other countries and their state-run companies that are jockeying for control of the region's substantial energy resources.
"Energy was a key piece of her discussions," said Slimp. "That's a concern, and rolling back of democracy [in Ukraine] is a concern, with the closeness of the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, with Russia."
Money provided from these oversees groups or their US-based liaisons can be substantial: Information on TD International's contract with the Ukrainian group was not immediately available, but subcontractor GPG received a flat fee of $30,000 for its recent work, and Slimp said his firm planned to continue working with both GPG and Dezenhall. Burson is receiving $65,000 per month for its work with Armenia, according to a filing with the Justice Department, with the funding actually coming from an Armenian-American businessperson in California.
One public affairs agency executive who has helped provide US outreach to a number of foreign entities said the phenomenon of expatriate organizations spending money on high-priced international PR - the aforementioned contracts and others also include outreach in Europe - reminded him of the promotion in the US of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), led by Ahmad Chalabi, before the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003.
"The idea was that Iraq had this despotic dictator, but no coherent foreign alternative leadership," said the executive, who wished to remain anonymous. "In Chalabi's version of this, it morphed into something corrupt and bad, but I know that Iraqi exiles around the world contributed to the INC. And a lot of these other things seem to be similar models."
Siegel & Gale MD David Henderson, a veteran of a number of PR and public affairs agencies and a former overseas correspondent for CBS News, said the trend of foreign entities coming to the US to sell an agenda or an issue represents an international recognition of the power of PR.
"In other words, if you want to sell a story in the Ukraine and demonstrate that you have true, deep power, come to the US and be seen as meeting with all the right power players and influencers," Henderson said. "Media is international, and this approach tends to add to their perceived credibility and influence in their own countries."