On 8 April, I spoke by phone to Vugar Khalilov, a former BBC journalist who ran Kyrgyzstan’s first professional PR agency. Among his clients was the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and as revolution in the country raged, he organised a telephone interview for me with Bakiyev, who had fled to the south of the country. Four days later, he was arrested by the country’s new authorities.
Ever since, Khalilov has been held in a basement cell at the offices of the country’s Security Services. He has been charged with money laundering, something most of his friends say is unthinkable.
But whatever the rights and wrongs of Khalilov’s particular case, it raises broader ethical questions. In a region of dictators, many of them more brutal and corrupt than Bakiyev, should international PR professionals happily take on suspect clients? And if they do, should they be held accountable if things go wrong?
Many of the unpleasant countries in the region have taken on major global PR firms to work on their international image. Belarus, dubbed the “last dictatorship in Europe”, for a while retained London-based Bell Pottinger to aid its international image. Ketchum runs the Kremlin’s PR machine. Even the most closed and undemocratic Central Asian state – Turkmenistan, has German consultants Goetzpartners working on its image and drumming up investment.
PR professionals working for countries like this are bound to come across unsavoury aspects of the ruling regimes and this presents them with a dilemma. “Your professional duty is to present your client’s position as clearly as possible. But there will be cases and clients where the only ethical position is to resign the account – or not take it up in the first place,” says Patrick Worms of Brussels-based Ecosolutions, who was in charge of media relations for the Georgian government until 2008. He claims that by and large the Georgian government wanted to do the right thing, making the occasional mistakes acceptable. But, he says, the same cannot be said for most of the other countries in the region.
“Any self-respecting professional has to take that decision before taking on any client, whether corporate or governmental. Your duty is to educate yourself before saying yes. Ignorance is not an excuse.” Others strongly disagree. “If I was offered money by a regime I knew to be unsavoury simply to set up meetings with the international press to put their views across, I don’t have a problem with that,” says Edward Baumgartner, a London-based independent communications consultant, who specialises in the former Soviet region. “If they wanted me to attempt to buy positive coverage, or do parliamentary lobbying, however, that’s a different question.”
“PR people help build dialogue between corporations or political leaders and the media; they are an essential tool for transparency in business and government,” agrees another London-based PR consultant who has known Khalilov for years. It’s true, he says, that some might think it unethical to offer services to a country that is clearly suspicious or criminal. “But PR people should never be arrested. There’s a boundary between the unethical and the criminal.”