Harper's Magazine on Washington Lobbying

Watch your newsstand for the July issue of Harper's Magazine. Today's Wall Street Journal reports today that Harper's Ken Silverstein has written an article describing his experience posing as a businessman with interests in improving the image of Turkmenistan. He approaches lobbying firms, and hints that he represents a front company that can direct oil revenues to officials in Turkmenistan.

The results are very revealing. They show how lobbying and public relations strategies work--attack opponents as "biased," hold bogus conferences to lure journalists hosted by others (the so called "third party method"), etc. These are activities that take place every day in DC, and they work.

Both APCO Associates and Cassidy & Associates gave Mr. Silverstein a sales pitch outlining their strategy and successes in similar cases. They recommended an aggressive campaign against "biased" news stories, organizing conferences at which sympathetic views could be aired, finding ways to get members of Congress to take paid trips to Turkmenistan and emphasizing how much the U.S. would benefit if Turkmenistan further opened its economy to outside investment.

APCO recommended holding forums for journalists, academics and politicians, hosted by a third party, where a Turkmen politician could give a speech. To avoid the feel of a paid advertisement, the lobby firm suggested possible names for the forum such as "Energy Security" or "Caspian Basin Pipelines."

Cassidy took credit for helping to clean up the image of President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. Three years ago, he had been ranked the world's sixth-worst dictator by Parade Magazine. The firm pointed out he was no longer in the top 10.

And get this--APCO won PR Agency of the Year in 2006 from PR Magazine!

Of course, these tactics are used outside Washington, and PR firms even use academics in their efforts. Earlier this year, the Boston Globe reported that "eSapience," a consulting company, had engaged a number of top academics to remedy the image of a common (but rich) alleged fraudster:

Business ethicists are questioning why the academics, affiliated with some of the top business and law schools, joined a campaign to repair the image of Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg , who was forced to resign in February 2005 as chairman of American Insurance Group Inc., billing him at rates of $400 to $1,000 an hour.

[...]

The academics, working with eSapience, a little-known Cambridge company calling itself a new media and research firm, included Richard Schmalensee , dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management; David S. Evans , adjunct professor at University College London; and Richard Epstein , a University of Chicago law professor.

Their mission was "to change the public conversation about Maurice Greenberg ," according to a confidential plan summary. This was to be accomplished, in part, by organizing invitation-only events where "influencers" would hear Greenberg weigh in on insurance issues and by penning papers, editorials, books, and other content aimed at putting the executive in a favorable light, the summary said.

[...]

The eSapience plan, though it doesn't name him, seems aimed at discrediting Eliot Spitzer , the crusading former New York attorney general who is now the state's governor. As attorney general, Spitzer filed a half dozen civil charges against Greenberg, accusing him of using accounting tricks to mask AIG's underwriting losses and faltering reserves. Some of the charges were later dropped, and Greenberg continues to contest the remaining charges.

[...]

While they aren't mentioned in the suit, the eSapience plan summary presented to C.V. Starr lists several other academics as members of what it calls its "core academic team and network," suggesting "they are ready to begin the development of the papers, articles, opeds, books, monographs, and other content related to our key themes," such as the onerous insurance regulatory environment.

Three of those listed, Harvard Business School professors Josh Lerner and Andrei Hagui and Boston University law professor Keith Hylton , last week said they played no role in the Greenberg campaign. Another, Robert Hahn , executive director of AEI-Brookings Center for Regulation, didn't respond to a request for comment.

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This is astounding. Finally, actual investigative journalism into lobbying practices that isn't just following the money after-the-fact of some crime.

Someone should have thought of this years ago.

Harper's is a bit risky. Sometimes the articles are a flaky, but sometimes they're right on.