Fri, Apr 18, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Tibet's supporters use publicity coup to fight oppression

By Stephanie Clifford  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Soon after China was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago, a series of public relations (PR) strategy sessions were held.

But it wasn't the Chinese government conducting the sessions: It was grassroots Tibet support groups in the US and abroad.

The protesters quickly established a communications plan, focused their message and ran camps where they taught members interview skills and even rappelling - as they showed off last week in hanging banners on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

As a result, the protesters have pulled off a publicity coup. Instead of basking in the glow of the coming games, China has quickly found itself on the defensive, and protesters have turned the subject from athletics in Beijing to the crackdown in Tibet, along with human-rights violations inside China and China's investments in Sudan.

"At first there was a profound sense of despair after the Chinese government was awarded the honor," said Kalaya'an Mendoza, a coordinator for Students for a Free Tibet, an activist group. "But after five minutes passed, we realized this would be a monumental opportunity for the Tibetan people to be put in the international spotlight."

For all its business success and military power, China is still something of a naif when it comes to Western-style public relations. In many ways, China is facing the same challenge that companies like Philip Morris and Wal-Mart have in recent years as protesters and union activists have grown increasingly sophisticated in delivering their message.

"Our voice cannot be heard," said Gao Wenqi (高文棋), spokesman for China's consulate in New York. "We have to improve our image."

The Tibet groups, though, have courted the media.

"The approach these groups have is spectacular in terms of public relations," said Richard Funess, president of Ruder Finn Americas, a public relations firm.

While China has not mastered the art of the grassroots publicity campaign, its government - with the Olympics in mind - has been exploring US-style public relations approaches.

A recent report in the Financial Times said, the Chinese government is now seeking its own public relations representation. Executives from five PR firms with a large presence in Beijing said they had not been contacted about the project.

Gao said that he did not know if the report was true, but that he thought some help was needed.

"My personal view is, it is a good idea to talk about this public relations industry, and seek help from the public relations industry to see if we can do better with the media," he said.

After China lost its Olympics bid in 1993, said David Liu, managing director for Weber Shandwick China, Olympic insiders advised it to hire a public relations firm before its next attempt. Weber Shandwick, owned by the Interpublic Group, won the contract, and, Liu said, his advice was that China separate its human-rights record from its Olympics bid.

What the firm suggested to the Olympic committee, Liu said, was that if Beijing were allowed to hold the Games, it might lead to some movement on a number of fronts.

"If you give China the Olympic hosting rights, then it is like you are engaging China, and naturally they will improve on a lot of things," Liu said.

Currently, the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games is using the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, owned by the WPP Group, to work on the Games. James Heimowitz, Hill & Knowlton North Asia's chief executive, says that its sphere is limited, as the Beijing Organizing Committee is not empowered to comment on Chinese government policy.

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