Ethics questioned in PR work for clients such as BCCI, Colombia

August 21, 1991|By Bruce Horovitz | Bruce Horovitz,Los Angeles Times

Public relations superstar Frank Mankiewicz is only too happy to rattle off the rather murky international clients that his giant PR firm has received inquiries from -- and rejected.

"We turned down the government of Libya. We turned down the contras. We turned down the government of Colombia," said Mr. Mankiewicz, now vice president at the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton and one-time architect of Sen. George McGovern's unsuccessful presidential campaign. "With international clients, we always look to see if their interests are compatible with the interests of the United States."

But recent Senate subcommittee hearings are raising questions about what role Hill & Knowlton played in advising associates of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International. While agency officials admit to providing some public relations guidance to BCCI several years ago, they deny offering any counsel since the bank's alleged financial shenanigans became front-page news.

BCCI is just one of a growing number of public relations clients to raise eyebrows among the general public. The Church of Scientology recently named a new PR firm. And the nation of Colombia also has an agency handling its PR. Because of circumstances like these, the question of ethics within the public relations field is being more closely monitored -- from inside and outside the field.

Critics say that a growing number of public relations officials are selling their "spin control" techniques to disreputable clients who dangle lots of money. But top officials within the field say that the opposite is true. They point to a stronger code of ethics adopted in 1988 by the Public Relations Society of America -- a code that is even included in some client contracts.

Meanwhile, one of the nation's foremost public relations officials thinks he has a solution. "Any nit-wit, crook or dumbbell can call himself or herself a PR practitioner," said 99-year-old Edward L. Bernays, regarded by many as the father of public relations. "I'm trying to bring about licensing and registration of people who call themselves public relations specialists, but I'm finding very little support for that."

At one time, Mr. Bernays turned down Adolph Hitler as a client, after a Hitler aide called him while posing as a representative for the German railroads. Mr. Bernays later turned down Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco. "I'm sorry," he recalls telling the Franco aide who called him. "I can't do work for a dictator."

The BCCI affair is far less clear-cut. Earlier this month, a former top federal official told a Senate subcommittee that "influence peddlers," including Mr. Mankiewicz and his business partner, Robert Gray, were instrumental in helping to squelch investigations of BCCI. "That's totally false," Mr. Mankiewicz said in an interview. "We made no calls on behalf of BCCI."

But several things are certain. Mr. Mankiewicz is an adviser to Clark M. Clifford, the former U.S. secretary of defense and recently resigned chairman of First American Bankshares, a Washington bank that has been linked to BCCI. Officials at both the London and Tampa offices of Hill & Knowlton acknowledge giving public relations counsel to BCCI between 1988 and 1990.

The agency's Tampa office "monitored" local media coverage of a 1988 trial in Tampa after BCCI officials were indicted on money-laundering charges, said Joseph Hice, acting general manger of the office. When the trial ended in a conviction, the firm stopped doing work for them, he said.

The type of clients a PR firm accepts usually depends on the attitude of the agency's top executives, said Jack Heeger, associate professor at California State University, Long Beach. "It comes down to this: Does the chairman feel it's OK to represent a client that may have some shady dealings?"

That is precisely why Joe Epley, president of the Public Relations Society of America, says he turned down a request to represent Jim Bakker's PTL Club back in 1983. "I didn't feel they were being honest with the people they were appealing to," said Mr. Epley.

Public relations executives say that just as people or companies in a jam have a right to an attorney, so should they have access to public relations counsel.

Take the Church of Scientology. Hill & Knowlton represented the organization until it resigned the business in June because of a client conflict. Since Aug. 1, Bain & Lichtenstein, a new public relations firm in Washington, has been handling PR for the Scientologists.

"Frankly, I think these are fine folks," said Jackson Bain, a principal of the firm who also oversaw the client at Hill & Knowlton. "My own belief is they're doing some awfully good things. The controversy comes from outside," said Mr. Bain, who noted he is an Episcopalian.

Among other things, Mr. Bain said that he leads media training sessions with the Church. "They need to understand how to deal with hostility, not by managing it but by diffusing it," he said.

Some Americans have hostile feelings toward the nation of Colombia -- regarded as the world's drug capital. Nevertheless, the country has an American public relations firm that tries to put it in the best light.

"There is no question that the government of Colombia is involved in vigorous attempts to eliminate the country's drug problems," said John Scanlon, a partner at the Washington-based public relations firm Soyer Miller Group and Colombia's advisers. To characterize Colombia as the drug capital, he said, "does an injustice to the people of Colombia."

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