All is fair in love and war? Spin during the Gulf War.

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"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance...It is the illusion of knowledge."
Stephen Hawking

When it comes to war, public relations can be particularly unethical. In order to gain the trust and support they need, governments are not afraid to lie and to manipulate the public. Very common strategies are to involve peoples` emotions, create a good vs. evil story and stress how the war is serving a greater good. Those kinds of stories have worked for centuries of warfare. It`s exactly what the US and the Kuwaiti government did to gain the nation`s (and the Congress`) support for the 2nd gulf war.

MacArthur (1992) observed: "In August 1990, the Bush administration`s task was to sell two images - an ugly one of Hussein and a handsome one of Kuwait - to the American people. (...) The unsavory facts about Kuwaiti society made the task of presenting a martyred nation to the American public a delicate one. The selling of Kuwait as a modern-day analogy to pre-World War II Czechoslovakia would take some doing."
In 1990, a 15-year old girl called "Nayirah" alleged she had witnessed the murder of babies in a Kuwaiti hospital, in verbal testimony to the US Congress. In the following weeks, the story ran in every American newspaper and TV station. George H.W. Bush himself mentioned it several times and so did Amnesty International. It ultimatly legitimized the 2nd Gulf War.

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Today we know: Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in the US and the story was funded by "Citizens for a free Kuwait", a front organization created by famous PR firm Hill&Knowlton and almost entirely funded by Kuwaiti money - a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration.
The final vote on the 2nd Gulf War was 52 to 47 votes in the Senat and 250 t0 183 votes in the Congress. That clearly shows how controversial the decision was. This war probably wouldn`t have happened, if it wasn`t for Nayirah`s lachrymose tale, it was the hook of a very refined and elaborate campaign.

Hill&Knowlton, who received over $10 Million from Citizens for a free Kuwait, was also responsible for press conferences showing torture by the Iraqis, the distribution of tens of thousands of "Free Kuwait" T-shirts and bumper stickers at college campuses across the US and observances like the "National Free Kuwait Day". They also produced dozens of video news releases, which were gladly broadcastet by national TV news stations, who hardly ever bothered to find out the the source of the footage. It shows how easy it is to control and manipulate the media, especially in times when speed is everything.
In the end, the media sold the public a clean war, with the military being their only source of information and reporting from the battle field closely observed. The coverage almost entirely ignored the war`s human cost, an estimated 100.000 civilian deaths.

One question remains: Was it worth it? For the Kuwaiti and the US government, in terms of securing their oil business it certainly was. For Hill&Knowlton`s public reputation and the entire profession of PR, it wasn`t.
When being asked wether the testimony of Nayirah was decisive in mobilizing support to enter the war, Frank Mankiewicz, vice-president of H&K, answered that he had been against the war from the beginning and that it was the president`s decision. But he also called Kuwait a success for his company. Trento (1992) argues that since the White House controlled all information they gave to the media and the public, it remains a question whether or not H&K`s effort on behalf of Kuwait was technically necessary or effective. But in the end, it did demonstrate that a PR firm behaved like a warmonger, distorting facts, presenting violators of human rights as democrats and fooling the media.

It reassured the public`s perception of PR being unethical and untrustworthy, a shady profession whose only goal is to manipulate. If big, well-known agencies like Hill&Knowlton continue to operate not only in an unethical, but actually illegal way and to keep their accounts and schemes secret, this will probably never change.


Bibliography:

Stauber, John & Rampton, Sheldon (1995): Toxic Sludge is Good For You. Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. Monroe: Common Courage Press.
MacArthur, John R. (1992): Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. Berkeley: University of CA Press.
Trento, S.B. (1992): The power house: Robert Keith Gray and the selling of access and influence in Washington. New York: St. Martin`s Press.

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