Africa

Should African governments employ Western lobbyists?

A number of African governments accused of human rights abuses have turned to public relations companies to salvage the image of their countries.

The BBC's Focus on Africa magazine asked two experts whether "reputation management" is mostly a cover-up for bad governance.

YES

Joel Frushone is the founder and president of Crescent Consultants in Washington DC.

Image caption Joel Frushone says the image campaign work he did in DR Congo was not masking bad governance

Soon after helping guide Joseph Kabila to winning the presidency in 2006 in the first multi-party elections held in the Democratic Republic of Congo in more than 40 years, my firm was given the opportunity to improve the country's image among international policy makers, donor nations and potential investors.

For countless reasons, including a label of "rape capital of the world", an unheralded position near the top of Transparency International's most corrupt nations rankings and more than four million lives lost during years of civil war, DR Congo badly needed to overhaul its reputation if it were to attract the development funds required to rebuild its shattered self.

This work was highly coveted by numerous distinguished international PR and lobbying firms. A select few, if any, however, had the background or in-depth knowledge of the country required to succeed.

During the two and a half years I spent in the DR Congo as Mr Kabila's campaign media and communications advisor, I developed close relationships with many people including presidential staff, personal aides and high-level ministerial officials.

I also developed a keen understanding of the president's vision for his country and its population. I knew where he wanted to take the DR Congo and I was hired to help him get there.

When drafting the image campaign strategy to present to the president after the 2006 elections, not once did I question if anything I was recommending was unethical. It wasn't even a part of my thought process.

While defending past actions was certainly an element of helping the country clean up its image, it was not a focus of my work.

Rather, together with key Congolese leaders chosen by the president, we concentrated on providing influential actors with the knowledge they needed to play a better supporting role in specific areas deemed critical to helping Mr Kabila foster and sustain reconstruction.

Targeting journalists

One way we did this was by targeting journalists across the globe and pitching them stories that highlighted positive developments happening throughout the country.

Image caption Joseph Kabila won DR Congo's first democratic election in 40 years

And there were many. Far more, in fact, than negative stories which unfortunately crowded out the construction of a new highway or a government initiative to support subsistence farmers, for example.

In a fashion similar to how he brought a negotiated peace to the DR Congo after his father, Laurent, was assassinated and leading the nation after the position was thrust upon him in 2001, Mr Kabila decided well before he was elected that what the country needed most urgently was infrastructure development.

So early in his first term, he launched so-called Cinq Chantiers, or five works zones: an innovative infrastructure; health and education; water and electricity; housing and employment programme designed to put DR Congo on the road to recovery. Incidentally, Cinq Chantiers was Mr Kabila's idea, not that of a high-powered PR firm.

Promoting the programme was one of the main objectives of my work to help repair the damaged image of the country. It was not, as some critics suggested, "reputation laundering" or done as some sort of elaborate shell game.

Bringing to the attention of individuals, groups, nations and multinational corporations positive developments like this and other similar advancements was done primarily to help attract massive investment dollars to fund DR Congo's reconstruction projects. Billions were needed.

'Agents of change'

PR firms working for African governments can actually also serve as agents of change. Much more so than human rights groups, who are often perceived by governments as focusing on the negative and serving as watchdogs ready to bite rather than as partners for change.

In accentuating the positive, we did not shy away from war, rape, disease, death, suffering and plunder.

These blights were not skeletons in a locked closet or part of history forgotten by time; they were serious contemporary issues that the government was, and still is, addressing on a daily basis.

We acknowledged and discussed them openly and factually among journalists and others, put them into perspective regarding how they continued to impact current policy decisions and moved on to the positive.

Our coordinated explanation of the roots of the situation in eastern DR Congo and the promotion of Mr Kabila's achievements - such as ending the civil war and unifying the country, securing democratic legitimacy and strengthening diplomatic relations - was not "reputation laundering" either. It was a presentation of fact.

There is no denying that PR firms will continue to secure lucrative contracts to help manage the image of African governments with less than stellar reputations, knowingly and purposefully covering up bad governance.

State-owned channels

There are also some African governments that are extremely adept at managing their own reputations and do not need PR firms.

They simply churn out propaganda on state-owned channels or, in many instances, control access to the domestic media and internet. This is not always the case and certainly was never part of any objective Mr Kabila wanted me to achieve.

The image campaign work I did in DR Congo had nothing to do with masking bad governance.

It remains a serious challenge, but there was never any effort to hide what remains a major obstacle to the country reaching a fraction of its potential.

It still has a long way to go on many fronts and will always need to work to improve its image. But it is also a place where both the negative and positive belong in the open if democracy is to flourish.