This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 10 2014
Last week I wrote in Ceylon Today about an article in the Calgary Herald by Manisha Krishnan. That article dealt with Ryan de Hoedt’s efforts to get his sister to Canada from Sri Lanka, where, according to him, she is in grave danger. I circulated the article among many Sri Lankan contacts, all of whom had difficulty in believing that de Hoedt’s sister was being persecuted in 2014 because her family helped Tamils in July 1983. I had copied a draft of my first article to Ms Krishnan using an e-mail address given at the foot of her own article. I said that I was giving her the opportunity to comment before I published and wanted to clear up some of the points in her article that had puzzled many people. She did not respond. I copied my published article to her using the same e-mail address. My e-mail bounced back as “undeliverable”. I sent her a message on Facebook, again giving her the opportunity to comment. To date she has not responded.
I have done another Google search for Ryan de Hoedt. I can see no response from the Sri Lankan government or police to the story in the Calgary Herald. The only information about Ryan de Hoedt is new print or online outlets repeating the Calgary Herald story. There is a Ryan de Hoedt on Facebook but there is no information at all on his timeline. Does Ryan de Hoedt exist? Perhaps the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa might look into this case and make a public statement?
Perhaps we should not expect that, as it seems that the responsibility for representing Sri Lanka has been taken away from diplomats and handed over to expensive foreign PR firms who know nothing about the country.
Bridge that Gap
Perhaps GOSL could consider handing the country’s PR contract to Tony Blair.GQ Magazine recently caused great hilarity by giving its Philanthropist of the Year award to Blair. GQ justified the award thus: “Alongside his role as a Middle East peace envoy, Blair’s channelled his energy into philanthropy… His most ambitious [project] is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Launched in 2008, the foundation operates in six African countries – Sierra Leone, Rwanda Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Senegal – where teams work alongside government bodies to bridge the gap between African leaders’ visions for a better future and their government’s ability to implement it.”
Good Governance in Kazakhstan
Blair does not seem to be very successful at fostering his own public image but his philanthropic work included some PR work for others. He had a two-year contract worth millions of pounds to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance. Human rights campaigners say Blair has produced no improvements for Kazakh people apart from Nursultan Nazarbayev, “Leader of the Nation”. Nazarbayev has ruled oppressively for over twenty years. During the time was advising him Kazakhstan’s human rights situation deteriorated. Nazarbayev won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote. Blair gave suggestions on how to improve Nazarbayev’s image after his police killed 14 unarmed protesters. Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one suppressed newspaper, said: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.” Borat might have done a better job.
Blair’s New Clients
Blair has added Mongolia and Albania to the list of clients. Albania’s new socialist government says it wants him to help Albania to achieve EU membership. Mongolia is seeking advice on foreign investment, health and education, health.
Blair’s office dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Kazakhstan, and says Blair makes no personal profit. Perhaps he could philanthropically assist Sri Lanka pro bono.
Tim Bell, now Baron Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger. The company came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and meddling with Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy. They have had many dodgy clients, such as General Pinochet, a recent one being Rolf Harris.
According to PR Week dated January 2010, Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka. Qorvis was to provide “media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.”
What return did Sri Lanka get for this investment? Despite Bell Pottinger’s dark arts, Rolf Harris got a sentence of five years and nine months in prison for twelve indecent assaults on children as young as seven. He is losing weight and being spat upon in prison.
Back in January 2009, the Washington Embassy of Sri Lanka retained the firm of Patton Boggs with a fixed fee of $35,000 per month, payable quarterly in advance. Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs helped run the account, which calls on Patton Boggs to “provide guidance and counsel to the Embassy of Sri Lanka regarding its relations with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the US Government.” How did that work out? Did we get value for money?
Patton Boggs did not influence then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sri Lanka’s benefit. She said: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering”. Patton Boggs’s efforts did not prevent Bruce Fein filing a 1,000-page report with the U.S. Justice Department charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Fein referred to “a grisly 61-year tale of Sinhalese Buddhists attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil free’”.
Patton Boggs recently merged with Squire Sanders. Will that enable them to give a better service to GOSL?
GOSL signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for US$ 75,000 a month (more than US $900,000 a year). B-M’s website boasts of its sophisticated campaigns: “Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high …. Most of all, clients come to us for our proven ability to communicate effectively with their most critical audiences and stakeholders.” Some critics have said that these sophisticated campaigns often include dirty tricks.
B-M is the largest PR firm in the world; it has represented some unlovely regimes. The Nigerian government engaged B-M during the Biafran war, to discredit reports of genocide. The fascist junta in Argentina hired B-M during the 70s and early 80s, to attract foreign investment. South Korea hired them to cover up human rights abuses for the 1988 Olympics. B-M represented the communist Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.
As well as asking if it is a good idea for Sri Lanka to be associated with these regimes, one could ask if B-M was successful in improving the public image of Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Ceausescu.
Thompson Advisory Group
GOSL paid millions of rupees to Thompson Advisory Group (TAG). A lump sum of Rs 4.5 million (as well a monthly fee of Rs. 910,000) went to a driver called Tilak Mohan Siriwardena. Apparently, there are plans to give TAG millions more. In a previous effort, more than once TAG referred to this island nation as “Sir Lanka”.
TAG produced a documentary, Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding, which Groundviews described as “rank propaganda… albeit produced very well, with compelling visuals and a well scripted storyline”. Did this film change anyone’s mind about Sri Lanka?
Macro or Micro?
Other PR firms advising the Sri Lankan government have included Vigilant Worldwide Communications of New York. Their task (for six months at a cost of $5,000 a month) is to “develop a strategic communications plan and conduct outreach to Members of the Congress and other US government officials with the purpose of raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the US.”
There may be some logic in this macro strategy of trying to influence influential people. The nitty-gritty though is does it work? It does not seem to.
Should a micro approach be tried? Why are such large sums being spent at the same time that challengeable items like the Calgary Herald story are allowed to go unchallenged? Embassy staff should be challenging these stories. The huge funds paid to western PR behemoths should be diverted to the diplomatic service to equip embassies to serve their country effectively.
Perhaps Mr Lional Premasiri, Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Ottawa, could issue a press release about the Calgary Herald story.