PR has a responsibility to help fight ISIS

In 1988, PR legend Harold Burson led a PR working party on the behest of President Reagan to forge relations with the Soviet Union. Is it time for PR to step up to the plate again in the cause of international peace, this time to help defeat ISIS?

President Obama speaks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism
President Obama speaks at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

There is arguably no more critical mission for communications professionals in the world today than counteracting ISIS recruiting propaganda.

The import of the problem has led the Obama administration to revamp its efforts to develop and deliver vitally needed counter-messaging. It is harnessing and coordinating efforts by the State Department, Pentagon, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies here and abroad.

ISIS represents a hellish, complex, global problem – piling terror upon terror and defying short-term solutions. For distressing insights into the psychological and sociological underpinnings of ISIS recruitment, check out The New York Times story ‘From Cairo Private School to Syria’s Killing Fields’.

But it is not hyperbolic to say that ISIS is also a public relations challenge, in the very literal and true sense of the term.

Although it would be the height of hubris to believe PR principles alone can turn the tide, they are certainly relevant. This was apparent at last week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism when, among other measures, pilot community engagement programs in three US cities were examined.

The President rightly challenged the international community to promote economic growth and development, fight corruption and increase support for education, especially for young women – all policies and action on which to base public relations messaging.

Admittedly, this war on terror is radically different from earlier international crises the world has faced. Nevertheless, a PR historical footnote seems worthy of reflection.

In the summer of 1988, at President Ronald Regan’s invitation, Harold Burson led a contingent of a dozen US public relations executives, including myself, in a series of Moscow and Washington, DC meetings with our putative Soviet "counterparts" for an exchange of views and experiences.

The Soviets were led by Alexander Yakovlev, the chief of the Communist Party, considered to be the intellectual force behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s gestating reforms, glasnost, and perestroika.

Did we help change the world, even a bit? We’ll never know. But President Reagan was kind enough to write to each of us, "This is simply to thank you for all you’ve done for America… You have given invaluable advice about public relations."

The world confronts a vastly different threat today. Can the PR industry help address it?

John Paluszek is senior counsel at Ketchum specializing in CSR/sustainable development. He is a past chair of the Global Alliance For Public Relations and a past president of the PRSA, and is liaison to the United Nations for those organizations.

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