A 19th century lesson on ethical PR and communication

Posted on: September 9, 2007

Here is a scenario for a campaign on human rights issues. The opponents claim serial oppression of an indigenous population in the developing world and provide evidence from observers in the field. Their campaign is marshaled by a determined, highly moral individual who is supported by church people, legislators and, increasingly, the media.

The campaign’s target, led by another national’s leader, fights back by questioning the motives of the campaign, the accuracy of the information and the economic impact should it have succeeded. Both use the media to make claim and counter-claim. The opponents make special use of church networks to roll out their campaign on both sides of the Atlantic. Both proponents and opponents lobby governments to make or reject laws on the economic exploitation.  

The proponents on two occasions set up “independent commissions” to investigate and report on the situation. The results of these commissions are challenged by the opponents as only limited sections of reports appear.  These are characteristics of modern human rights campaigns like those fought over environmental issues in the Amazon, the claims of “sweat shop” manufacturing in the developing world and of health issues such as tobacco and obesity.

But this scenario is taken from more than a century ago when the King of Belgium, Leopold II, was opening up and exploiting what we know now as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for rubber and ivory. His opponents were led by a feisty British journalist, E.D. Morel, who later became an MP by defeating Winston Churchill in the 1920s. Morel was not the first to be appalled by the exploitation of the Congolese or the first to campaign against it, but he was the first to mount and sustain an effective campaign using methods that we would consider part of modern democratic debate. His campaign brought major changes to the government of the Congo and some relief to its people.

The oppression of the Congolese, of whom 10 million are thought to have died during the period that Leopold II reigned, is a genocide that was supported by commercial and national interests and by the communication resources that they used and abused. The whole story is told by Adam Hochshild, in King Leopold’s Ghost published by Pan Book*. It is a book that should be read by practitioners, academics and students as it shows how public relations and corporate communication techniques can support evil practices, as well as effectively oppose them.

Over the past century, there is plenty of evidence that unethical practitioners in exploitation, lobbying and communication are as rife now as they were at the turn of the 19th century. As Adam Hochshild notes, “multinational have also been in on the take [in the DRC]” (p. 316). By 2004, there had been an estimated four million deaths and 2 million refugees in the DRC because of fighting in the east of the country and in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi. He concludes, “Tragically, no powerful outside constituency, like Morel’s Congo reformers, exists to lobby for measure that would help” (p. 317). 

* Hochshild, A. (2006) King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition). London: Pan Books. Also published by Houghton Mifflin in the US. ISBN 0-330-44198-1


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Tom Watson

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