PRs baffled by Robert Mugabe's role as WHO ambassador - but at least the U-turn was quick

PR professionals have expressed shock at the World Health Organization's announcement of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador - but praised the body's quick change of heart.

Controversial leader: Robert Mugabe in 2014 (credit: GovernmentZA on Flickr)
Controversial leader: Robert Mugabe in 2014 (credit: GovernmentZA on Flickr)

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom announced on Sunday (22 October) that he had "listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns", after eyebrows were raised across the globe at Mugabe's appointment.

The day before, he had said he was "rethinking" Mugabe's role.

Mugabe, who has become an international pariah during his nearly three decades leading Zimbabwe, had been unveiled on Wednesday (18 November), when Adhanom said at an event in Uruguay: "I am honoured to be joined by President Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies... [and] to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs [non-communicable diseases] for Africa to influence his peers in his region."

Nicole Yost, head of healthcare at Porter Novelli in London, said she was "shocked" to hear of Mugabe's appointment: "It is hard to imagine a worse candidate."

"It is good that the decision has been reversed but this appointment should never had been made. The episode has been reputationally damaging for an organisation that does so much good," Yost went on to say.

One PR professional on Twitter praised the way in which Adhanom went about reversing the decision, while another declared: "Common sense prevailed."

Angie Wiles, founder of virtual healthcare comms agency The Difference Collective, commented: "Whilst you can appreciate why the WHO considered him for the role given his increasing focus on treating and preventing communicable diseases, 'fame' and 'reputation' are very different and Mugabe is most definitely famous for all the wrong things."

Another PR, speaking on Twitter, had a less serious take on the affair.

Adhanom has since retweeted a post praising the manner in which he handled the volte-face.

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