US Firm Encourages 'Fist and Open Hand' in Syria
Published Sunday, July 8, 2012
On 19 May 2011, a memorandum entitled “Crisis Communications Analysis” was forwarded by [email protected], an account which is most likely used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to Syrian minister of presidential affairs Mansour Azzam. The memo was authored by Brown Lloyd James (BJL), a powerful global strategic communications firm hired by the regime to improve its image. (doc-id 2089956)
The communications firm had initially sent the memo to Fares Kallas, the Director of Projects and Initiatives of the Office of the First Lady, Asma al-Assad. It detailed an assessment of the situation in Syria and gave recommendations on how to handle the uprising from a communications standpoint. BJL was founded by Peter Brown, currently the chief executive officer, and Sir Nicholas Lloyd, currently the chairman, in 1997 in New York and London. Mike Holtzman is the current president of the company.
BJL has three “flagship offices” based in New York, London and Doha, with “strategic hubs” in Washington DC, Ho Chi Minh City, Rome, Frankfurt, Paris, Moscow, and Madrid. The “About BJL” page on the website proclaims: “Brown Lloyd James is managed by an elite group of distinguished former news executives, top-level White House and Downing Street political advisers, high-profile entertainment industry executives and experts in international affairs. Our staff have been at the right hand of presidents, prime ministers, media barons – and yes, even The Beatles.”
A number of highly prominent international clients have been represented by BJL, including the Kingdom of Morocco, Muammar Gaddafi, The Qatar Foundation, The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the City of London, and the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. It was involved in a number of successful campaigns including Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the launch of al-Jazeera English in the United States. Last year, the firm was involved in beautifying the image of the Assad regime in the West through various projects, beginning with Vogue’s fawning portrayal of Asma al-Assad published in February 2011. Vogue deleted the article from its archives after the criticism it received.
The May 2011 BJL memorandum offers a guide for members of the Syrian political clique in the regime to rework their image and refine their message, as the military attempts to stamp out the uprising. More so, the memo includes advice on possible branding campaigns and social actions that can reinvigorate the regime’s image throughout this process. It began by noting that “the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive” but acknowledges that the American government’s position has been changing over time.
A brief assessment of the Syrian political leadership’s handling of the uprising followed, based solely on its communication skills: “Syria has had an imbalance in its communications approach since the beginning of the crisis,” it reads. “If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria’s actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place.”
BJL warned that the leadership’s reform agenda was widely viewed as lacking ownership and seemed to have “taken a back seat to the immediate political crisis”. Thus the result would most likely continue to be “a recipe for restiveness and instability going forward” within the domestic sphere, while “emboldening critics and reinforcing those who don’t believe reform is sincere” outside of Syria.
Hence, the BJL memo recommended a balance between the “two hands” of the regime: “Rule of law is a fist. Reform is an open hand. Right now the fist appears to the outside, and probably to many Syrians, as though it is ten times bigger than the outstretched palm. They must be brought into better balance.”
“Reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved, at home and abroad, or else the credibility of these efforts – and a key part of the President’s appeal and popularity among the people – will be diminished. Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will de-legitimize critics at home and abroad.” For this to happen, the firm made five key strategic recommendations to overcome the regime’s PR failure. These include exploiting Bashar and Asma’s image through actions such as unannounced tours and tightly-planned publicized gatherings with families and young people, as well as utilizing the promise of reform on the condition of stability, and placing a strong emphasis on the future.
Moreover, it recommended that the administration hold the army and security forces accountable, making “a very public, visible show of punishing/firing/indicting troops that violate [Assad’s] orders” not to fire on civilians, to portray a sense of fairness and indicate its serious intentions to reform. Additionally, it recommended establishing a 24-hour media monitoring system that can combat negative narratives against the regime.
Finally, the firm stressed that “efforts should be made to convey ‘normalcy’ to contrast current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos.” The memorandum ended by advising the political leadership “to continue to express confidence in the future and that the crisis is waning.” Essentially, the memo called for the Assad regime to revamp its messaging in order to convince the international community and the Syrian people that ‘mistakes’ were made and that the regime is trying to change if it were given the chance.
This was not the last time BJL and the Assad regime interacted. According to one of the Assad email caches received by The Guardian earlier this year, Mike Holtzman was in contact with an aide to the Syrian leadership in January 2012, in which he expressed his pride regarding a successful PR event that involved a surprise visit by Assad and his wife to a pro-regime demonstration.