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How Putin And Russia Use Powerful U.S. PR Firms To Shape American Opinion

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.
By Sue Curry Jansen / The Conversation

The Russian attempt to influence the 2016 American presidential election, using what intelligence agencies call “active measures,” has dominated U.S. headlines.

There is, however, a second front in Russia’s effort to shape the hearts and minds of American citizens, and it’s received almost no attention in mainstream U.S. media outlets since the election.

As someone who studies the growth of global public relations, I’ve researched the roles PR firms play in shaping public perceptions of international affairs.

The Conversation

For years, Russia has been involved in public relations campaigns that have been developed and deployed by prominent, U.S.-based, global PR firms – campaigns intended to influence American public opinion and policy in ways that advance Russia’s strategic interests.

Legal propaganda?

Public relations is an industry that seeks to cultivate favorable impressions of corporations, products, individuals or causes. A company or public figure might hire a firm to increase visibility, advance marketing agendas, promote strategic initiatives or manage a crisis.

But things can get tricky when foreign governments get involved. When they hire PR firms to influence public opinion in other countries, they could undermine the domestic values and goals of the targeted nations.

In the 1930s, the PR firm of Ivy Lee – who, along with Edward Bernays, is regarded as a “founding father” of the public relations industry – was accused of circulating Nazi propaganda in the U.S. In response, Congress enacted the Foreign Agent Registry Act (FARA) in 1938, which required foreign propagandists operating in the U.S. to register with the government. In 1966, FARA was amended to cover people promoting the economic and political interests of their foreign clients.

In what has become an infamous example of political PR, Kuwait hired numerous U.S. and U.K. firms to drum up support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. As part of that effort, PR giant Hill & Knowlton audaciously created a front group to hold hearings – led by two U.S. Congressmen – on Iraq’s human rights violations. Called the “Human Rights Caucus,” the group wasn’t actually an official congressional caucus.

More routinely, foreign nations hire PR firms to attract foreign investments and promote tourism and trade. Such efforts are completely legal, and business-as-usual for corporate PR firms and lobbyists. All they have to do is register under FARA.

While foreign government-funded advocacy campaigns are legal, they can be far from transparent. PR strategies are generally designed to hide the persuasive effort because – as the industry saying goes – “the best PR is invisible PR.”

Burnishing Russia’s image

Russia’s domestic PR business has grown rapidly since the end of the Cold War, but Russian authorities prefer to use Western firms when targeting Western audiences. Since the U.S. is both a dominant force in PR – 15 of the 20 largest global firms are American – and a prime target of Russian influence efforts, it’s not surprising that Putin’s forces would turn to U.S. firms for PR services.

Industry publication PRWeek reports that Russia has spent US$115 million on Western PR firms since 2000, with most going to the U.S. firm Ketchum, a division of Omnicom. (To put that in context: According to the Center for Public Integrity, the 50 countries with the worst human rights violation records have spent $168 million on American lobbyists and PR specialists since 2010.)

From 2006 to 2014, Ketchum had ongoing contracts with the Russian government and its state-owned energy company Gazprom.

Charged with improving Putin’s and Russia’s image abroad, Ketchum facilitated op-eds by Russian officials in publications around the world, including Putin’s 2013 New York Times article warning the U.S. on Syria.

According to ProPublica, Ketchum also placed what appeared to be independent opinion pieces praising Russia in the Huffington Post, on CNBC’s website (where links to those stories are no longer active) and in other publications without acknowledging their sources. The firm lobbied Time magazine to name Putin “Person of the Year,” which it did in 2007.

That same year, according to Reuters, Ketchum tried to convince the State Department to soften its assessment of Russia’s human rights abuses. The firm also contacted reporters who cover Russian human rights abuses urging them to also tone down their criticism.

Faced with intense criticism after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Ketchum formally ended its contract with Russia in March 2015, tersely announcing that it “no longer represents the Russian Federation in the U.S. or Europe with the exception of our office in Moscow.”

However one of its partners, GPlus, continued the relationship under similar terms.

Exploiting the loopholes

Late last year, Russia’s Minister of Communications Nikolay Nikiforov announced that the Kremlin would be seeking new contracts with Western PR firms this summer to improve its global image, with the intent of spending between $30 and $50 million a year – possibly more. He indicated that Russia is seeking smaller, less expensive – and perhaps less visible – firms than Ketchum.

PRWeek quoted a leading Russian political analyst, Stanislav Belkovsky, who told the publication, “There are a number of schemes that can be used to avoid U.S. accounting rules on lobbying and PR.” In other words, he was pointing out that there are ways to avoid registering with FARA – and thereby concealing the sources of the pro-Russian messaging.

Indeed, the Project on Government Oversight, an independent non-partisan watchdog group, cites loopholes in FARA that make it difficult to police violations. Even when violations are discovered, prosecution is rare. Instead lapses are usually remediated by late filing. This is what happened in the recent cases of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who represented pro-Putin forces in Ukraine, and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who represented Turkey. Though they had both been working as foreign lobbyists for an extended period of time, they only recently filed with FARA as foreign agents.

And because the U.S. regulates lobbying – not PR – another common legal loophole involves contracting with firms that have both public relations and lobbying arms. Clients will then channel as much of their business as possible through the PR arm.

The blurry line between PR and news

PR is rarely covered by the mainstream media in the U.S. Yes, non-profits like ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Sunlight Foundation and NPR fill some of the void.

But it’s a contrast to the U.K., where publications like The Guardian extensively cover the nexus of public relations, politics and policy. During prime minister Tony Blair’s tenure, PR grew rapidly in Britain as politicians and businesses adopted American-style electioneering and promotional techniques. Perhaps for this reason, British media outlets are more attuned to the ramifications of public relations.

The Trump administration’s attack on mainstream media as purveyors of “fake news” and its promotion of “alternative facts” has rallied journalism to a vigorous defense of the First Amendment, and has led to calls for critical media literacy.

Yet research indicates that as much as 75 percent of U.S. news begins as public relations. For transparency advocates, this is a problem. By definition, PR is a biased, monetized form of communication that seeks to advance the vested interests of clients. Even some public relations industry figures have recently acknowledged their field’s role in the dissemination of “fake news.”

During the past two decades, the newspaper industry has contracted, with advertisers and readers migrating to the internet. Conversely, the PR industry has experienced growth in both employment opportunities and salaries. In the U.S., there are now nearly five PR people for every reporter. Americans are now being exposed to more public relations than ever before.

While some PR serves worthy causes – promoting health, education, charity and disaster relief – I believe all PR deserves closer scrutiny because it bypasses the norms of democratic processes: transparency, accountability and the right of all interested parties to have voice in civic debates.

To Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, the terms “public relations” and “propaganda” were interchangeable.

The ConversationWe should think of PR the same way, scrutinizing it with as much critical rigor as we view propaganda.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sue Curry Jansen is a professor of Media and Communication at Muhlenberg College. She focuses on freedom of expression and its obstacles, the sociology of knowledge, gender and technology, and the social and intellectual history of the Progressive Era.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

Breitbart’s Managing Editor Used The Site To Promote His PR Clients

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

Breitbart.com managing editor Wynton Hall has frequently used the website to promote a nonprofit that employs him as a communications strategist, as well as at least one client for a separate communications firm he runs.

Hall, a conservative writer and activist, began writing for Breitbart in 2011. He became the right-wing website’s managing editor in 2013 as part of an effort to help ensure “a 24/7 editorial team focused on the site.” He is second only to Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow, according to a masthead provided last month to the congressional credentialing committee.

But while Hall’s title suggests that he plays a key role at Breitbart, that is not his only job. He also serves as the communications strategist for the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a conservative advocacy organization.

Breitbart and GAI are inextricably linked: Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer serves as the nonprofit’s president, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon led both organizations from 2012 to 2016, and GAI’s main funders, hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, are partial owners of the website.

Members of the Senate Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents have questioned whether Breitbart is editorially independent given these overlaps. The committee is currently reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional credentials, but has to this point denied its application.

At GAI, where Hall received a six-figure salary and worked 40 hours a week from 2012 to 2015, according to the group’s publicly available IRS filings. He is responsible for engineering public relations strategies that ensure that the organization’s dry research achieves maximum impact.

Hall has capitalized on his role at Breitbart to boost GAI’s efforts. Hall wrote 151 Breitbart posts that promoted GAI or Schweizer, according to a Media Matters review of all 1,382 posts Hall authored between 2011 and 2015.

In addition to his work at GAI, Hall also has private communications clients. He owns his own self-named celebrity ghostwriting and branding agency; he claims its client list features major figures in politics, business, sports, and the arts, presumably creating a wealth of conflicts of interest with his work at Breitbart. Hall is also senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the communications agency that Schweizer co-owns.

Hall has used his Breitbart platform to promote at least one of his clients: The website published several stories on one of the books he ghostwrote without mentioning his financial ties to the book. Because neither Hall or Oval Office Writers publishes a client list, it is impossible to tell how frequently this occurs.

It’s unclear how Hall could work full time at a nonprofit while also serving in a senior editorial role at Breitbart, running a third business, and working for a fourth. Critics say this apparent inconsistency “raises serious questions of private inurement and excessive compensation.”

Indeed, Hall’s malfeasance is only a small part of a massive web of self-dealing and interconnected conflicts of interest linking Mercer, Bannon, GAI, Breitbart, and for-profit companies.

Hall’s work at GAI is both lucrative and extensive; according to the group’s IRS filings, Hall worked 40 hours a week at GAI from 2012 to 2015 and received a total of $600,000.

At GAI, Hall is the “creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated,” with a mandate to “transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters,” according to an October 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Bannon.

His strategy, as he described it in an interview with the magazine, is to “anchor left” by placing the stories with reporters at mainstream publications, then “pivot right” by turning those stories into narratives at conservative outlets. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” Hall says.

Trying to get reports written up by major news outlets is a typical communications strategy for a nonprofit. What’s unusual is that Hall, Bannon, and Schweizer have been able to implement the plans Hall designs in his role with GAI through their leadership positions at Breitbart. Hall typically plays a key role in producing content at Breitbart that promotes GAI’s research.

In August 2012, Schweizer’s book Throw Them All Out, which alleges widespread financial corruption by members of Congress, hit the stands. Hall, who has worked with Schweizer since at least 2007, when they co-authored a book as fellows at the Hoover Institution, joined Breitbart to promote the work.

In fact, Hall’s first 17 pieces at Breitbart, and 22 of his first 24, authored over the span of six weeks in late 2011, all promoted Schweizer’s book, a 60 Minutes segment on the book that “anchored” it in the traditional media, and the legislative fight its publication spurred, according to a Media Matters review.

Hall’s posts were clearly geared toward building support and readership for the book on the right. His work included a series of press-release-style summaries of the book’s “bombshell revelation[s],” sometimes branded as “EXCLUSIVE”; criticism of media’s failure to report on the book’s claims; and reports on politicians and media outlets that praised the book or pushed for legislation in response to it. The constant stream of posts helped maintain a drumbeat on the right around its publication.

Hall has continued to promote GAI’s work in his writing for Breitbart. He authored 1,382 posts between November 2011 and July 2015, at times writing three a day; a whopping 151 of them referenced Schweizer or a GAI product. In addition to 51 posts mentioning Throw Them All Out, Hall wrote 18 posts on Schweizer’s 2013 book, Extortion; 10 or more pieces on GAI’s reports on presidential daily briefs, food stamps, and presidential meetings; and multiple articles on GAI’s work on campaign finance violations, Justice Department decisions, and the growth of wealth in Washington, D.C.

Here is a sampling of headlines from Hall’s pieces about Schweizer and GAI:

Hall’s promotion of GAI reports typically followed the same pattern: a blitz of press-release-type pieces before or immediately after the report’s release, highlighting its premise, exclusive tidbits, and any “anchoring” press; write-ups of Schweizer appearances on TV or radio shows talking about the work; and a long tail of follow-up posts that use news hooks to reiterate the premises of the GAI report and remind the audience about it.

After Hall became managing editor and gained additional responsibilities at Breitbart, other Breitbart writers who were not employed by GAI joined in his effort to promote the nonprofit’s work. In 2015, Schweizer authored Clinton Cash, a trainwreck of sloppy research alleging corruption by Bill and Hillary Clinton that received widespread media attention for its claims even though it contains numerous falsehoods and fabrications. Breitbart played a key role by pushing the book’s claims in more than 400 posts, none of which were authored by Hall.

When Martin Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor who had tailored men’s clothing for more than 60 years out of a factory in Brooklyn, was looking for someone to help him tell his story, he turned to Hall. The result was Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor To Presidents’ Tailor, a memoir released November 10, 2014, with both of their names emblazoned on its cover.

“Thank you, Wynton, for helping me gather my scattered thoughts and keeping me focused. This book could not have been assembled without your laser vision and talent,” Greenfield writes in the book’s acknowledgments. “He became me,” reads Greenfield’s testimonial on the website of Wynton Hall & Co., the celebrity ghostwriting firm that Hall has owned and operated since 2008.

Hall’s client list consists of politicians, business leaders, and top figures in sports and the arts, according to his firm’s website. In addition to writing memoirs, Hall and his team of two offer comprehensive brand management, speechwriting, and media training services.

But when Greenfield hired Hall, he didn’t just get someone who could help him organize his thoughts, or even just a talented ghostwriter who could also help him promote the book. Whether he knew it or not, Greenfield was also getting the full support of Hall’s other employer, Breitbart.

The conservative website published at least six stories on the book in the three days following its publication, running two of them on the top of its front page for a total of 18 hours. The front page posting claimed that “Martin Greenfield has been hailed ‘America’s greatest living tailor’ and the ‘most interesting man in the world.'”

Five of the stories were published without bylines, including two excerpts from the book, aggregated storiesfrom other outlets about it, and a post featuring audio of Mark Levin reading from the book during his radio show in what the piece claims was a “rhapsodic radio performance … that was at times operatic in its tone.”

The sixth, bylined by Hall, purports to be a written Q&A with Greenfield — described as “America’s greatest living suit maker” and a “legend.” Hall’s hard-hitting questions included, “Why did you write Measure of a Man?” and “Talk about some of the other men you’ve made suits for.”

Several of the pieces include Amazon links to Measure of a Man. None includes a disclosure that Breitbart’s managing editor had helped write the book — even the post authored by Hall. In fact, every piece lists only Greenfield as the memoir’s author, even though Hall’s name appears on its cover. This practice has continuedin the months and years since the book’s publication

None of Breitbart’s competitors in the conservative media have provided anything close to that level of coverage of Greenfield’s book. Then again, none of them employ Greenfield’s co-author.

It’s unclear how often Hall has used his top editorial position at Breitbart to promote his clients. The firm’s website provides testimonials from some of the subjects of “Wynton Hall’s books,” but it does not provide a comprehensive list. And Hall’s brand management clients are completely opaque — he appears to offer an exclusive list of 12 clients services that include biweekly marketing strategy calls, speechwriting, talking points for media appearances, and ghostwritten books and articles.

In addition to his personal communications firm, Hall is also a senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, the four-man group that was co-founded by Schweizer and former Bush White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen. Oval Office Writers does not list any of its clients, but its website’s list of services suggests that they are corporate leaders and politicians.

Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.

 

Remember Those Temporary Officials Trump Quietly Installed? Some Are Now Permanent Employees.

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

by Derek Kravitz 

Last month, ProPublica revealed that the Trump administration had installed hundreds of political appointees across the federal government without formally announcing them.

The more than 400 officials were hired in temporary positions for what the White House calls “beachhead teams.” Government hiring rules allow them to have those positions for up to eight months.

Now some of them are getting permanent federal jobs, oftentimes with little or no public notice.

A review of federal agencies’ staffing lists, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and department websites, found the Trump administration has made at least 25 of its beachhead hires permanent. The White House and federal agencies don’t have to make public hires that don’t require Senate confirmation.

At least five of the new permanent staffers are former lobbyists or consultants now working at the agencies they once sought to influence.

“At the bare minimum, we need to know their names since they are public officials shaping policy,” said Max Stier, the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that advises new administrations on smooth transitions.

Take the Department of Homeland Security’s new chief of staff, Kirstjen Nielsen. She was a White House aide to President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2007 and then lobbied Homeland Security as president and general counsel at the Civitas Group. She then founded her own Washington firm, Sunesis Consulting, in 2012 that advised “senior domestic and foreign government officials” on disaster preparedness issues, according to her online biography.

She joined DHS’ beachhead team one day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and her hiring has now been made permanent, according to the DHS website.

Nielsen’s position doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

The Trump administration has made slower than typical progress in filling positions that do require Senate confirmation. So far, just 22 officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there are 473 key positions that require confirmation but remain empty and have no announced nominee, according to the Partnership for Public Service and Washington Post.

Other administrations have hired party loyalists, campaign staffers and congressional aides en masse in the first 100 days. But none have relied on temporary appointments on this scale, experts say. And dozens of ex-lobbyists populate the top ranks of federal agencies, which Trump had pledged to sweep away from public service.

Former lobbyists and corporate consultants who are now in key positons overseeing government regulations can be found across dozens of federal agencies, ProPublica and The New York Times found in an analysis of government records. In response to our reporting, seven U.S. senators sent a letter Thursday to the White House, urging the Trump administration to make all waivers to ethics pledges public and releasing White House visitor records.

The White House did not respond to ProPublica requests for comment. Homeland Security confirmed the permanent appointments but said it had “nothing to add.”

Al Shaw and Justin Elliott contributed reporting.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Real News? How Americans Confront Big Problems At The Grassroots

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

A decade ago, some barons of the media establishment designated themselves America’s official arbiters of political truth. One of their tools is PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times and several other major newspapers, which issues an award for the year’s most outrageous falsehood.

Last year’s election was infested with so much disinformation and dishonesty, however, that PolitiFact’s 2016 Lie of the Year was not a single prevarication, but that cluster bomb of whoppers collectively branded “Fake News.”

Just as troubling as fake news is the media’s systematic omission of grassroots news that people could really use. What’s missing is real news of the ordinary Americans in practically every zip code, who are finding innovative solutions to big problems that the elites do nothing about. Uplifting local actions are blooming throughout our land, yet most people are unaware of them or the results: that people and communities everywhere are breaking the corporate chains that shackle them. Here are a few examples:

Inequality. In 2014, American CEOs earned 350 times more than the average worker, creating the world’s greatest income gap. Washington’s response to the grotesque inequity has been to blow political hot air at it and hope it drifts away. It hasn’t. So, in December, the mayor and city council of Portland, Oregon, decided to stop talking about the ever-widening gap and actually try to shrink it.

They added a surcharge to the local tax bill of any corporation that gives its top exec more than 100 times the median pay of its rank and-file employees, providing a financial incentive for corporate boards to seek some balance and at least to consider pay fairness. The main sponsor of the provision called it, “The closest thing I’d seen to a tax on inequality itself.” The mayor called Portlanders problem solvers willing to tackle big issues and test new ideas that can be adapted and refined by others: “Local action replicated around the country can start to make a difference.”

Public Education. With Betsy DeVos, the right-wing ideologue and billionaire Amway heiress, now leading an all-out Trumpster charge to destroy America’s public schools and privatize educational opportunity, what chance is there for school kids from low- and middle-income families? Don’t despair, for there is hope in local people’s common sense commitment to the common good, as presently being demonstrated in San Antonio, Texas. A few years ago, Mayor Julian Castro launched a democratic process for ordinary citizens to decide the best way for the city to invest in its future.

After weeks of city-wide conversations, San Antonians chose a single priority: Invest in our children’s future by expanding quality, full-day, pre-kindergarten education for more of the city’s children. This was no small task, for the government of this extremely rich state is run by boneheaded tea-party Republicans who constantly shortchange our public-school system and refuse to fund more than half-day pre-K programs. So where to get the money? The people did what the anti-public-school halfwits said would never happen – they taxed themselves, voting for a 1/8th of a cent sales tax hike that put $31 million a year into the successful experiment called Pre-K 4 SA. San Antonians recognize the wisdom of the old bumper sticker: “If you think educations is expensive, try ignorance.”

Corporate Power. Trump and his like-minded congress critters are gearing up to unleash corporate profiteers from practically all restraints that protect us ordinary people, our natural resources, and even our core values from their greed. But they might want to ponder how North Dakota voters reacted to a similar power play last year. At issue was a monumental 1932 state law that bans nonfamily corporate farm ownership, reflecting the people’s desire to maintain family farms, healthy rural communities, and sustainable agriculture practices.

Nostalgic hogwash, growled Big Ag lobbyists, who got obsequious legislators and the corporate-funded governor to overturn the eight-decade-old ban on industrial ag. In turn, progressive forces, led by the North Dakota Farmers Union, plowed the grassroots, recruiting volunteers to put on last June’s ballot a referendum giving common voters the final say. And speak they did, loud and clear: 76 percent of North Dakotans rejected the corporate powers and the politicos who served them, restoring the outright ban on corporate-controlled farming.

These “real news” stories show that it is possible to build progressive power in cities and the states. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a tremendous resource for communities that want to build their economies in ways that nurture people instead of giant, far-removed corporations.