It’s been three months since the Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than two hundred schoolgirls in Nigeria. The Nigerian government has yet to free the girls, and it’s come under criticism for its handling of the crisis. It’s also been shamed by the global campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which even Michelle Obama got in on.
So what’s a country with a bad rap to do? Get some PR, of course.
“I think there is a narrative that the government was not doing enough,” says Mark Irion, president of the public relations firm LEVICK, which signed a $1.2 million contract to galvanize support for the Nigerian government and its fight against terrorism.
LEVICK’s motto is "Communicating trust." Irion says much of the storyline about Nigeria’s tepid response to the crisis “is not true.”
“There are things that are underway and are public,” he says. “And there are things that, of course, cannot be publicly discussed. But, yes, there is a false narrative that we intend to correct.”
It’s no coincidence the Washington Post recently ran an op-ed from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. “My silence has been necessary,” he wrote, “to avoid compromising the details of our investigation.”
(Here’s a tongue-in-cheek response to that piece.)
J. Peter Pham directs the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. He says the fact is Nigeria has failed to deal with Boko Haram over the years.
“You cannot spin that reality any more than you can spin the fact that there are more than two hundred schoolgirls still missing and Boko Haram continues to attack with impunity throughout northeastern Nigeria,” he says.
Now, trying to improve the image of foreign governments is nothing new. It’s big business for PR firms like Ketchum Inc., which made more than $10 million from its foreign clients last year, including the Russia Federation and Gazprom. (You can see that tabulation here, via the Sunlight Foundation.) Ketchum continued to represent Russia through the turmoil in Ukraine.
Still, part of this business is knowing who to represent and when to stop.
“You know everyone has their own litmus test,” says Toby Moffett, a former Congressman who used to run The Moffett Group. That was the M in the PLM Group, the trio of firms that lobbied and did communications for Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and the military council that replaced him.
That representation continued until Egyptian police raided U.S.-backed NGOs and barred some Americans from leaving the country.
“I did receive a call from a friend who happened to be President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood,” Moffett recalls. “And Ray was not happy, to put it mildly.”
LaHood’s son was one of the Americans who was temporarily trapped in Egypt. Moffett says he would’ve dropped the Egypt account anyway. Still…
“You know there was that kind of gentle persuasion, shall we say,” he says.
When it comes to foreign governments, it turns out gentle persuasion can run both ways.
One postscript: In October, Egypt signed a new contract with another communications firm, The Glover Park Group. That representation will cost the country $250,000 a month.