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The marketing of a despot

Published by Forbes on 1988-11-28

IN THE SUMMER OF 1983 old friends Donald Casey and Darryl Hunt decided to go into business for themselves. Casey, then 47, gave up his $ 63,000-a-year job as an information officer at the United Nations Development Program. Hunt, then 46, quit his position as an information specialist with the Fund for Peace. A city block from Casey's old U.N. office, the two started Agendas International. The industry they chose was marketing, but this was to be no ordinary marketing business. Their sole product turned out to be a foreign dictator -- and a none too savory one.

That may sound like a hard sell, but Casey and Hunt have made it work. Their client, Sandinista caudillo Daniel Ortega Saavedra, has closed newspapers and armed his impoverished country to the teeth. Yet he has gotten a pretty good press here.

"We set out to assist the Third World in getting a better deal in America," is the way Casey explains his marketing mission.

For all the high-sounding talk, Casey and Hunt have a lot in common with old-time Hollywood press agents. Their primary task is gaining access to the media. They think up clever ways to get Ortega exposure on terms favorable to the U.S.' leading editors and anchor people. "Our man Ortega is a quick learner, and he understands what we're trying to do for his image," says Hunt approvingly.

Ortega listens to the advice. Ordinarily, Ortega runs 5 miles at dawn, near his home in Managua, carrying a Soviet-made Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle. This is good public relations at home: The iron he packs lets the local folks know he's not a man to mess with. His U.S. media advisers knew the jogging would play well in the U.S. media, but not the Kalashnikov. The AK-47 stayed in Managua. With Ortega in New York and ready to run in October 1985, Hunt and Casey telephoned a friend at the New York Times and invited the paper to send a journalist for an early morning jog with Ortega in Central Park. The Times sent over a reported and a photographer. Hunt and Casey also lined up a television crew from New York's Channel 5. The entire group ran 5 miles that morning, to the clicking of shutters and purr of videotape. Nice, healthy, vigorous young man, that Danny Ortega.

The results were a press agent's dreams come true. Casey recalls: "We figured the story, if it got in at all, would be somewhere in the back of next day's paper." The Times ran a page one story about what Third World leaders in New York for U.N. meetings do with their spare time. A photograph of the jogging-suited Sandinista was carried by the wire services and subsequently appeared overseas. Four days later ABC ran a puffy feature on Ortega and his run during its evening national news program.

Was Ortega jailing his opponents at home? Sure, but could a guy be all bad who got up early in the morning and went jogging?

Hunt and Casey's Agendas International is only one of the players in the multibillion-dollar world of national image doctors, or "political consulting" as its practitioners call it. It has become quite a business: Estimates range from $ 2 billion to $ 5 billion annually, with a growing share of that coming from the developing countries. David Morey, a political consultant who teaches a course on international communications at Columbia University, estimates Third World spending on image creation at almost $ 1 billion annually. That $ 1 billion would feed a lot of hungry Africans, Latins and Asians, but never mind; the boss' image comes first. Who can tell when he may want money or other help from the U.S.?

Of course, not all of the clients are Marxist dictators. Japan alone coughs up more than $ 100 million annually to polish its image in the U.S. media. Mark Malloch Brown, of New York-based Sawyer/Miller Group, works for many Third World clients, including the government of Colombia. Brown's goal: Convince Americans that Virgilio Barco Vargas, president of Colombia, is seriously tackling Colombia's drug industry, the biggest supplier of cocaine to this country. Brown has come up with an advertising campaign in three major U.S. newspapers highlighting the fact that 1,300 Colombian policemen have died since 1984 at the hands of drug lords.

Among the other big spenders for political consultants, says TRW Inc. Vice President Pat Choate (who is writing a book on foreign lobbyists), are Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

When it comes to political facelifts, however, few people have performed miracles like Ortega-mouth-pieces Casey and Hunt. They understand the media and know how to manipulate it. "We know that to emphasize an event you've got to think of the pictorial possibilities," Hunt says. With photo opportunities constantly in mind, the publicists coach visiting Sandinistas to look trim. Aware of the American media's dislike of military rulers, the Marxist commanders wear civilian clothing and leave their fatigues at home.

Casey and Hunt say they try to create at least one major media event whenever top Nicaraguan officials visit the U.S. A couple of years ago, for example, Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez went with Casey to meet NBC's Tom Brokaw for a background chat. As Brokaw and the Sandinista chatted, then Attorney General Edwin Meese came on the air with some revelations about the Iran-contra affair.

Brokaw asked Ramirez for an on-the-spot interview, which Ramirez, fluent in English, happily granted. It was the perfect deal. NBC had a scoop, the Sandinistas got free air time to rebut the Administration, and Hunt and Casey assured themselves of more access at NBC News. So thrilled was Brokaw that he invited Ramirez to appear on a special program on the Iran-contra imbroglio later that evening.

To assist in the Sandinistas' use of staged publicity to put pressure on the U.S. government, Casey and Hunt decided that Ortega should address the Young Presidents' Organization in September 1987. They apparently hoped to build pressure to end the Reagan Administration's ban on U.S. trade with Nicaragua. For the speech, Ortega donned a natty dark blue suit, and promised the businessmen that new private enterprises would not be nationalized or harassed. Ten months later, when the Sandinistas seized the country's largest sugar refinery, the promise didn't seem worth the air it was launched into.

When Representative Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) recently proposed giving the contras $ 57 million in aid, for example, Sandinista advisers Casey and Hunt told Ortega that the proposal had no chance of passing. This was welcome news to Ortega, who was pressing ahead with cracking down on domestic dissenters and jailing political opponents.

Right now Casey and Hunt have a bit of a problem. President Reagan recently restricted the Sandinistas' access to U.S. visas. Now Ortega and his cadres can visit the country only on U.N. or other multilateral organization business. This may make it a bit harder for Ortega's press agents to stage their media events. But only a bit harder.

"We take a very strategic approach to the media," Hunt says. "We want to break the headlock that the Administration has on his [Ortega's] image in the U.S." If it entails a little creative manipulation of the press, well, marketing is marketing.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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