Ruder Finn's work for Croatia

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Murky History

From Diana Johnstone's Fool's Crusade, Pluto Press 2002, p. 68-70:

Creating a Public Opinion

On 7 July 1991, under the auspices of the European Community, the leaders of Slovenia and Croatia agreed (in the so-called "Brioni Declaration") to suspend their declarations of independence for three months to allow negotiations toward a peaceful solution. However, during this supposed cooling-off period a major unilateral step was taken in the most decisive of all wars in Yugoslavia: the public relations war. On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to "develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media". On 12 November 1991, Ruder Finn's contract was renewed to include lobbying in relation to diplomatic recognition, sanctions, and embargoes, as well as briefings for officials of the first Bush administration and preparation of special background material, press releases, both reactive and proactive articles and letters to the editors to appear in major newspapers, briefings for journalists, columnists, and commentators. In January and February 1992, Ruder Finn organized trips to Croatia for U.S. Congressmen. The United States recognized Croatia as an independent state on 7 April 1992.

Many people's first impressions of the conflict were influenced by the deluge of press releases sent to Congressmen and media. Video clips with frightful images of death and destruction were distributed worldwide with commentaries designed to support the idea that the fighting taking place in Croatia was part of a deliberate plan to create "Greater Serbia" by the conquering Croatia.

On 23 June 1992, Izetbegovic's government in Sarajevo in turn signed a contract with Ruder Finn in order to promote a stronger leadership role for the United States in the Balkans. To this end, the agency undertook an impressive array of actions, notably setting up a "Bosnia Crisis Communication Center" in contact with American, British, and French media; media appearance coaching for Bosnian foreign minister Haris Silajdzic; sending press releases to U.S. Congressmen and "Fax Updates" on developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina to over 300 addresses, including the most important world media and parliamentarians; writing 17 letters to be signed by Izetbegovic and Silajdzic and addressed to top world representatives at international conferences; organizing personal contacts between Silajdzic and Al Gore, Margaret Thatcher, and other influential personalities, including 17 U.S. Senators; placing articles on in the editorial pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and so on.

Siladjdzic revealed the effects of his Ruder Finn training in subsequent conversation with the French writer Bernard-Henry Lévy, who had undertaken volunteer public relations for Izetbegovic in Paris. Silajdzic boasted naively of being a "star" in the United States, and claimed that he was able to change millions of votes by merely appearing on television. Silajdzic startled Lévy by reproaching him for failing to exploit sufficiently the "propaganda" theme of "genocide". This showed his "American side", commented Lévy.

Eighteen months after taking the Croatian contract, Ruder Finn was able to boast to having "developed a reputation as the international public relations agency with the greatest experience and involvement with the crisis in the Balkans. Our work has helped put Ruder Finn on the map in Washington, DC, and internationally." The agency claimed to have gained "dozens of close contacts in Congress and among the news media".

In October 1992, Ruder Finn took up the job of public relations for the ethnic Albanian separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

In March 1993, as hostilities sharpened between Croatia and Muslim forces disputing territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Croatian government turned to another American agency, Waterman and Associates, to stave off eventual Muslim accusations that Croatia shared equal responsibility with Serbia. The campaigns on behalf of Tudjman's Croatia enjoyed financial and political support from Croatian é­migré organizations in the United States and Canada.

In April 1993, French television journalist Jacques Merlino visited the Washington headquarters of Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to interview the man in charge of the Balkan contracts, James Harff. Merlino asked Harff what he considered his proudest achievement in this operation. The answer: "Having succeeded in putting Jewish opinion on our side." The image of both Croats and Bosnian Muslims risked being tarnished by their involvement in the persecution of Jews during World War II. "Our challenge was to turn that around", Harff told Merlino, and this had been done thanks to the "camps" story.

In the first days of August 1992, the Long Island newspaper Newsday published reports from its Bonn correspondent Roy Gutman, based on interviews in Zagreb, telling of horrendous conditions in Serb-run internment camps in Bosnia. Seeing the potential impact of comparison with Nazi "death camps", Ruder Finn immediately contacted three major Jewish organizations, the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress, suggesting they publicly protest. They did. This launched the demonization of Serbs as the new Nazis. In 1993, Ruder Finn was awarded the Silver Medal of the Public Relations Society of America in the category "crisis communication".

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