These days Colonel Muammar Gadaffi prefers to be photographed
wearing a kaftan than the full military regalia and mirror shades of
One of the leaders most reviled by the West, Gadaffi now enjoys the
public support of one of our most respected political figures, Nelson
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
capitalise on the detente with the UK and the UN by spinning some
positive coverage for Gadaffi’s regime, but finding a PR agency willing
to take on the work has proved a little difficult.
International Public Relations (IPR), a Dubai-based agency affiliated to
Shandwick, was approached by the Libyans to take on the task of
publicising a special meeting of the Organisation 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 for the
work, decided it needed the help of an international network, and sought
an agency prepared to take the work on. In all, PR Week has found five
UK agencies and one US outfit which were approached. Most of them
declined to be named and none of them took on the work.
Apparently, Strategic Profile International (SPI), a UK public affairs
outfit which specialises 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 organising a parliamentary delegation to
coincide with the 30th anniversary of the revolution which brought
Gadaffi to power.
But Nick Archer, UK public affairs director at Edelman PR Worldwide,
which has just turned away the Indonesian government, asks: ’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.
B-M 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 ten 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 which 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 and Knowlton’s UK business was one of those which turned Libya
H&K accepted work from the government of Angola, during the civil war in
the mid-1980s and early-1990s, Turkey and Brazil in the mid-1990s and
Zambia last year. 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 Lockerbie trial, which
is unlikely to begin before the first quarter of next year.
Bickham believes PR can help Libya, but adds that it is a huge task.
’Libya has an awfully long way to go, a long period of maverick
behaviour to live down.’
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, or defend.
Rumgay recommends applying the test set down by the Advertising
Standards Authority - is what you are being asked to do legal, decent,
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
SPI has presented Libya with a long-term image-building plan, and has
yet to hear back. Courage believes it is at the grass roots level that
PR can do most to foster better relations between Libya and the UK. He
points out that there are 5,000 Libyan students in Britain, and that the
British form the largest expatriate community in Libya.
’The first thing we would want to do is humanise 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 Gadaffi 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
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.
HOW LIBYA MIGHT GO ABOUT IMPROVING ITS IMAGE
There are three main ways to promote a country: politically, through
tourism and through trade. In Libya’s case, trade is the best place to
start. Libya has money from oil which it has not been able to spend
because of sanctions, and needs to invest in its infrastructure.
Suggestions put forward by consultants include:
- Decide which industry sectors to develop, then target international
companies through conferences and specialist media.
- Use oil money to help some noble causes
- Establish a chamber of commerce, followed by an academy to promote
- Initiate a public affairs campaign to inform foreign politicians,
using parliamentary exchanges and contact programmes for visiting
politicians, taking them to party conferences.