Your first reaction is to snicker.
You read that the Pentagon has hired a public relations firm, that the fighters have enlisted some flacks, and you think it’s silly, trivial, a waste of money. To be precise, a waste of $397,000 for four months, with an option to renew for another eight.
Your second reaction is to understand.
The public relations firm is the Rendon Group, which once tried to polish the image of some anti-Saddam Iraqis on behalf of the CIA. Now it will aid the Pentagon. It will try to explain U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan to 79 nations across the world. It will conduct focus groups. It will create an anti-terrorism website. It will provide a second side of the story to nations whose press, for the most part, knows only one side, the anti-American, the-hell-with-the-New York-skyline side.
The irony here is that image-makers have always had a shady image themselves. In fact, public relations was created in a kind of original sin, the occupation coming into being almost a century ago, when a man named Ivy Lee tried to put a happy face on the massacre of striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado. Lee’s client was John D. Rockefeller. The men who massacred the miners were Rockefeller-hired private goons. Lee was a Rockefeller-hired truth-bender.
Later, the field took a further hit when the Hoover administration ordered the erection of billboards that read: "Wasn’t the Depression Terrible?" The year was 1931. The Depression would be terrible for a decade to come.
Even the man known as the father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, spoke critically of the field. PR, he once said is the making of "large pedestals for small statues."
Actually, one searches through history books in mounting frustration for an endorsement of PR by a reputable figure---and then, of all things, one finds it from Abraham Lincoln. Speaking half a century before the field even officially existed, he said that "[h]e who molds public sentiment gives deeper than he who enacts statutes."
To which one can only respond: Welllll . . . maybe. It depends.
But in this case, the case of a nation responding to a uniquely vicious campaign of terrorism, public relations really can give deeply. It can speak to people unused to hearing, can explain to people unused to reasoning.
It can say: All 5,000 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks were innocent, in contrast to the handful of innocent victims, so far, of American reprisals.
It can say: The two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were bombarded deliberately, with malice aforethought, in contrast to the accidental hits on a Red Cross food warehouse which are an unavoidable consequence of war.
It can say: The Bush administration is not kidding when it insists that the enemy is neither a nation nor a religion, but rather a collection of human beings so vilely anti-social that decent men and women the world over long for their extermination.
It can say: Americans are fighting for a way of life that is more ennobling for all of those who live under it, especially women and minorities, than the barbaric way of life of the terrorists.
So, good luck to the Rendon Group. It won’t be easy to change so many hearts and so many minds in so many countries whose citizens have for so long been kept in the dark by agencies of government and media.
But if the end will be a struggle, the means will be a snap. For a change, the PR people do not have to spin the truth. All they have to do it tell it.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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