Fame and misfortune

From Croatia to Botswana, successful public relations campaigns can massively influence general opinions

Caroline Roddis takes a break from the ‘Game of Thrones’ walking tour to explore how PR can influence our media.

I’m in Croatia at the moment. I’m having a wonderful time, in case you wondered, wandering around Roman ruins and lying on beaches and drinking quite frankly Bacchanalian quantities of wine. It’s all rather lovely and carefree, except that I was supposed to submit this column to the editor before I left. As he well knows, however, I am a terrible person. And speaking of terrible people, I visited Tito’s summer residence yesterday. 

For six months of every year, Tito liked to hang out in Brijuni, a collection of 14 islands just off the now Croatian coast in Istria. Today it’s a state-owned national park, freely accessible to visitors – apart from all the bits that are strictly off-limits to the public, of course. In his day, Tito claimed the whole island for his own because, as a dictator, if you want it, you get it. And if you don’t get it, you kill it.

First visiting in 1947 and then consistently until his death in 1980, Tito had a whale of a time on Brijuni. He based himself in the white villa on the beautiful central island and, over time, constructed a variety of other facilities, including an outdoor cinema, Mediterranean gardens and a place for his many exotic animals.

The ruler of Yugoslavia liked to entertain, and everyone from heads of state to famous actors like Elizabeth Taylor and Sofia Loren visited the islands, all bringing gifts that were usually in the form of more animals for his collection. Our own Queen Elizabeth II brought him the relatively portable Shetland ponies, but there were also elephants, tigers, giraffes, lions, zebras – you name it, it got dragged to a small island and fondled by a dictator. Although Josephine Baker went there of her own accord…

There is a small museum of photos where you can see President Tito, who looks like a slightly squarer, more evil Roger Moore, posing delightedly with these gifts, as well as some properly surreal shots of a chimp in full clothing riding a bicycle.

On the ground floor of the same museum you’ll see a lot of the animals, too – mildly comical montages of taxidermy that display completely inappropriate combinations of (often very young) birds and animals against backdrops of woodland or jungle or snow. There are even points where they’ve rather given up on the whole thing and just arranged the animals by colour.

What’s even weirder than this, however, is how the people on the island talk about Tito. In England we’re quite used to the picture of President Tito the dictator, who unified Yugoslavia through the same violence he then maintained it with. On the island, however, he is admired. He was a benevolent ruler – as long as you didn’t get on the wrong side of him, they acknowledge – and things were better under his rule: wages were higher, quality of life was better, and people knew where they stood.

Tito, of course, was very careful in how he cultivated his image among his citizens – hence the museum with quite so many carefully staged photographs. Perspective is a funny thing, and one that’s easy to manipulate, which is why people, and governments, pay millions to do just that. Including, as it happens, the government of Botswana, which, when it lifted its elephant-hunting ban recently, “hired a public-relations firm specializing in Hollywood celebrities to spin public opinion to its side”, according to Bloomberg.  

The fact that they felt the need to do this demonstrates the global strength of feeling against big game hunting, and the power that these antis have to sway opinion.

The reasons the government lifted the ban were, allegedly, because as many as 50 citizens have been killed since 2014 when it was imposed, because the increased numbers of elephants are doing substantial damage to property, and because the hunting licences will raise funds and create jobs. Oh, and because the government needs rural support in the forthcoming elections, but that’s the problem with democracy, right Tito? 

Much like taxidermy, PR can be used to create false images and ideas – often with detrimental impacts

One hates to think about how much the PR firm was paid, money that could have undoubtedly been spent on better things, but in any case they were crap at their job. There was an almost instant international backlash, spearheaded by television host Ellen DeGeneres, who Tweeted: “President Masisi, for every person who wants to kill elephants, there are millions who want them protected. We’re watching. #BeKindToElephants” 

I find this tweet somewhat creepy because, to me, ‘we’re watching’ sounds like a threat and I’m sure that if she aimed it at a different target, for example a religious leader or a female MP, she’d now be on some kind of watch list. As it is, I’m sure the Botswana government gleefully banned her show in their country, but that’s not quite the same. 

As for the tweet, it worked: the glitzy PR firm Botswana had hired, 42 West, whose star-studded client list includes Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Will Smith, pulled out of the contract, and the person in charge of the account has since refused to talk to the media.

This is probably due to pressure from some the stars it represents, whose accounts are undoubtedly worth more than Botswana can spend, and reflects the crux of the problem – even when media reporting of the issue is relatively balanced, as it was largely here, the power lies with external influencers who are not interested in balanced arguments but instead broadcast a single-issue, biased view. It’s all about perspective and, as in Tito’s day, the one with the power to broadcast theirs widest wins.   

It is ironic that the media begins to look like the saviour in all this, but of course they are not – they are often the ones amplifying these views, not to mention the ones publishing articles at the behest of PRs.

As ever, we must, like all free citizens, continue to promote critical thinking and encourage the proliferation of more perspectives in all types of media.

Otherwise one day we’ll be visiting an exhibition of animals trapped in aspic, surrounded by triumphant propaganda about how the antis have triumphed and nothing can ever hurt them again. At least there’ll probably be a gift shop

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