Friday, April 04, 2008

Richard Edelman, Spinmeister

There is no place in PR for spin. To be deemed a spinmeister is the ultimate insult. We are in the business of presenting reality, both to clients’ stakeholders but also to the client. We advise, develop strategy and listen, so that we help to shape the reality.”

--Richard Edelman, June 1, 2007

Last year Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman PR, the world’s largest independent PR firm, came out with a post on his blog, 6 A.M., that is so hypocritical that one really has to wonder whether he is clueless about what his large company is up to or whether he is, well, just a hypocrite.

The post in question from May 25 is titled “The Power of One (and of Stories).” In it Mr. Edelman tells of a screening he had attended the night before of a National Geographic documentary called “God Grew Tired of Us (The Lost Boys of Sudan).” It is a moving and inspirational story of refugee children from southern Sudan who fled the genocidal brutality of Khartoum, suffered years of horror and deprivation living in refugee camps, and, in the case of John Bul Dau (author of the book on which the movie is based), ended up reunited with his family and getting an education in Seattle.

From the film, the discussion that followed the screening, and a meeting with Mr. Bul Dau, Mr. Edelman eloquently outlines the lessons that we can learn from the author and all these courageous children: that “leaders can emerge from unexpected places and unforeseen circumstances,” that “his optimism was tempered by realism but nourished by a deep faith from his religious background but also by confidence in himself,” that “there is no substitute for hard work,” and that “the power of family is a central element of his success.”

While I laud Mr. Edelman’s bringing this moving story to our attention and agree with the sentiments he expresses in his post, I am stunned by his seeming ignorance of the refugee crisis his company is helping to perpetuate on the other side of Africa, in the Western Sahara.

For those of you uninitiated about this issue, in the mid-1970s, in the wake of an International Court of Justice ruling that confirmed the Western Sahara’s right to de-colonial self-determination, Morocco invaded the territory driving some 150,000 of the indigenous Sahrawi from their homes and into dismal refugee camps over the border in the Tindouf region of Algeria. After 15 years of inconclusive warfare, the parties signed a peace treaty in 1991 which called for a referendum on independence. And after another 15 years of attempts by the UN to implement the referendum, Morocco unilaterally canceled the referendum process rather than risk a vote they might lose.

Morocco’s refusal to abide by clear international law and to allow the Western Saharans the right to self-determination enjoyed by every other colony in Africa, has resulted in a refugee crisis now well into its fourth decade. Many in the camps have known no other home. The refugees live in tents and mud-brick houses. Educational and professional opportunities are extremely limited or non-existent. UNHCR which monitors the camps regularly cites dire health conditions with high levels of anemia and acute malnutrition among the most severe problems. If Mr. Edelman is looking for “lost” refugee children to champion, he need look no farther than the boys and girls of Tindouf.

Mr. Edelman’s company, however, chooses to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Sahrawi children and to take money, lots of money, from the Government of Morocco which helps perpetuate their misery. In particular, I point to Edelman PR’s partnership with the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered agent of the Kingdom of Morocco.

While Edelman PR’s relationship with the Government of Morocco deals with a number of issues, their partnership with MACP appears to be all about the Western Sahara. A look a MACP’s website is revealing. Here we get the same collection of untruths, half-truths, omissions, and distortions about the Western Sahara that has been coming out of Rabat for over thirty years. For instance, we learn that “current Moroccan claims of sovereignty are merely reassertions of … [a] past period of influence” (totally rejected by the International Court of Justice); that Sahrawi children from the refugee camps are habitually “kidnapped” and “deported” to Cuba for “indoctrination” (totally rejected by the UNHCR); and that the Polisario Front, the national liberation movement of the Western Sahara, is a “separatist movement" (see my last few posts). The information we get about the Western Sahara is pure boilerplate Moroccan propaganda.

The outrageousness of the site is aptly symbolized by its inclusion of a map of Morocco (including the Western Sahara within its borders) that is accepted by no country. I’m sure Mr. Edelman would have a thing or two to say about Palestinian maps that don’t show the state of Israel (or even Israeli maps that include Palestine within its borders).

Edelman PR’s active collaboration with MACP in the dissemination of Moroccan propaganda is clearly illustrated by the disclaimer that appears at the end of MACP press releases. They read: “This material is distributed by DJE, Inc. and the Moroccan-American Center for Policy on behalf of the Government of Morocco. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.” DJE in case you were wondering stands for Daniel J. Edelman. Stick this disclaimer in your favorite search engine and read some of the press releases that Edelman has been distributing -- pretty raunchy stuff most of it, if truth is what you value.

Edelman PR’s highest profile work on behalf of MACP was the Free Them Now campaign for the release of the last remaining Moroccan prisoners of war being held by the Polisario Front -- a campaign by the way that got Edelman a Golden World Award for Advocacy & Lobbying from the International Public Relations Association (IPRA).

It is not so much the actual cause of the prisoners of war that I find a problem; several pro-Polisario analysts had concluded that holding the remaining POW’s had become counterproductive for the Western Saharan cause and that they should be released on humanitarian grounds. Actually, the Polisario itself had been committed for over a decade to releasing the prisoners and had already released most of them. Nevertheless, it was Morocco’s refusal to come clean about hundreds of Western Saharan disappearances and to hold a referendum as they had agreed to that more than anything held up the release.

What I find reprehensible about the Edelman campaign is its utter mendacity. Free Them Now was part of a much broader effort by Edelman to demonize the Polisario by blitzing the American media with Moroccan lies. Edelman’s own description of the campaign on the website of the International Public Relations Association is an amazing read on the art of spin.

I have written extensively about several of the “execution points” (as Edelman calls them) of the campaign: Senator McCain’s grandstanding, the Washington Times’ propensity to believe and print any rubbish Morocco and Edelman give it, Congressman Diaz-Balart’s totally disgraceful press conference in Miami. In a nutshell, Edelman PR partnered with MACP to spread misinformation about the Western Sahara in order to sway public opinion to accept Morocco’s brutal and illegal occupation and to whitewash Morocco’s blatant refusal to abide by international law.

Oh yes, this is about Mr. Bul Dau and poor refugees. Edelman PR is actively colluding with Morocco to deny the Western Saharans their day at the ballot box and to ensure that the boys and girls of Tindouf suffer in their dismal refugee camps for the foreseeable future. Mr. Edelman’s attempt to have us believe that he cares at all about poor refugee children is a bit rich I would say.

Let me return for a moment to my initial paragraph where I ponder whether Mr. Edelman was hypocritical, ignorant of what his company is up to, or a hypocrite. I admit to being a regular reader of Mr. Edelman’s 6.A.M. blog. As a long-time critic of Edelman PR’s involvement with Morocco, I am fascinated by his weekly attempts to position his company as THE ethical PR firm., while the blogosphere groans under the weight of thousands of posts ranting about Edelman PR’s ethical envelopepushing. Google Edelman and Wal-Mart or Microsoft for a sample. Hypocritical, ignorant, or a hypocrite? Oh I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Edelman should rename his blog 8 A.M or even 10 A.M.; perhaps he needs a few extra hours of sleep.

On Mr. Edelman’s blog I asked him a question that he refrained to acknowledge or answer; so in conclusion I will ask it here. Mr. Edelman, if the Government of Sudan walked into your office tomorrow and offered you lots of money to clean up their image in the United States, would you take it? If your answer is “yes” then shame on you; if it is “no” that’s commendable, but then why do you take money from Morocco?


  1. Anonymous9:23 PM

    Edelman did a very good job regarding the campaign to release the prisoners of war detained by the Polisario. Some of them spent more than 20 years in jail and forced labor.

    Congratulations Edelman !

  2. Anonymous5:25 AM

    What 150 Saharawi prisoners of war captured by Morocco and over 500 political detainees who are currently in Moroccan jails subjected to torture and who live in conditions similar to those of the dungeons of the middle ages? Do you think Edelman cares about them or will do anything to release them?

    If Edelman did lobby for the release of Moroccan soldiers captured during the war by Polisario it was not because of humanitarian reasons but because of the dollars paid by the Moroccan regime.

    Moroccan soldiers invaded illegally Western Sahara and committed atrocities against Saharawi civilians that are similar to crimes of war and should en up that the International Court for crimes against humanity.

    They Moroccan soldiers (POWs) were captured red handed. They benefited from visits by the CICR, shared food and shelter with Saharawi refugees and some of them even got married over there. Their release was a stage of the Peace Plan that Morocco obstructed. Remember that Morocco refused to receive hundreds of Morocco soldiers (POWs) who were released by for humanitarian reasons Polisario until their was international pressure. Remember also that there is no end of war yet only a fragile cease-fire that could end at any time. Would you or Edelman give reassurances that ex-Moroccan POWs will not come back and fight Polisario if there was a resumption of hostilities? Remember that some of the POWs were going to join ASM in its March towards Tifarity last month and help with guiding the ASM troops and taking care of the landmines.

    Anonymous you’re just another hypocrite like Edelman and its bosses.

  3. Anonymous8:59 AM

    The fact that UNHCR and CICR employees get paid to do their humanitarian job doesn't make them guilty of wrong doing.

    Similarly, if Edelman got paid for a successful campaign that ended a long humanitarian tragedy, there is nothing wrong with it.

    If there were atrocities committed in the Sahara by any of the parties involved, a fair trial is well welcomed.

  4. Anonymous10:28 AM

    The issue is that Edelman is working for an absolute regime in Morocco where the King rules and abuses power. His power is "devine" and no one in Morocco can question that. He is so-called the Commander of the Faithful and claims that his power is given by God and no one dare question that or they will end up in jail if they're lucky not to be killed like Ben Barka and Oufkir. The Alawite family that rules Morocco has caused so much suffering not only for the poor and miserable Moroccans but also for the whole region. They murdered, tortured, kidnapped and jailed thousands of Moroccans and Saharawis. Hassan II was blood thirsty and so is his son Mohamed VI. They should be tried for crimes against humanity. Don't tell us that working for the Nazis or the Alawaites is the same as working for the UN or the CICR. Edelman has no ethics or morals and so are its clients in Rabat.

  5. Please first of all give yourself names to make it easier to respond to your posts.

    To the anonymous who wrote, "...if Edelman got paid for a successful campaign that ended a long humanitarian tragedy, there is nothing wrong with it."

    I would say that there absolutely is something wrong with it when those paying Edelman (Morocco) are guilty of perpetrating a far far worse humanitarian trajedy and when Edelman resorts to lying and distortion to reach its goal.