Run It By The PR People

Posted on February 25, 2012. Filed under: Public Relations, Society | Tags: , , , , , |

Title page of the first German translation of ...

First German Translation Of Koran, 1772, Wikipedia

Public relations is often belittled as a high-gloss, no-substance operation. But that’s a mistake. Public relations is a make-or-break deal for any organization today.

Case in point: the disaster in Afghanistan following the burning — “inadvertent,” as the President says — of the Korans in Afghanistan by U.S. military personnel.

There is absolutely nothing amusing about this incident. Deadly consequences are occurring due to what was apparently a routine garbage disposal operation by the military — burning a few unwanted books. In a country where certain books are deemed sacred and inviolable.

I can’t presume to know what was going through the minds of the people who put the books out for burning. But here are some thoughts:

  • Americans live in a world flush with books, none of which are deemed irreplaceable. No book, not the Bible, not the Koran, not the Tibetan Book of the Dead, no book is seen as worthy of dying for in the U.S. — nor in the rest of the secular Western world to my knowledge. Not today, although that was certainly not the case in the past. William Tyndale was burnt at the stake in Belgium in 1596 for the heresy of publishing the Bible. Tyndale broke the rules by making the Bible accessible to the masses.
  •  But in a world where books are as readily available as corn flakes, and sold and consumed in much the same fashion — and in this I speak of printed material, not of the e-books which float in their own universe through the cyber clouds — where’s the harm in chucking a few copies into the trash? It happens every day. Although Tom Warth, founder of Books for Africa Books For Africa website has set up an entire charitable enterprise based on the idea that the Western world’s discarded books are food for thought (literally) for book-starved African schoolchildren.
  • So it isn’t much of a stretch to surmise that for the American Koran burners in Afghanistan, it was just no big deal to burn a few books. But it turned out to be a terrible mistake. One that has ended up costing the lives of both Americans and Afghans. This is now considered a horrible public relations problem for America — a PR nightmare, as is the clichéd saying.
  • And it is, a true PR nightmare.
  • Like many PR nightmares, it didn’t have to happen. Not if someone in charge had any good PR sense — or had the sense to run it by the military public affairs people to see if there weren’t any problems in the offing if books such as the Koran (the holiest of holy books in Islam, come on! How dense can you be not to understand that after all these years of ground troop involvement in the Islāmic world?) were thrown into the fire.
  • But this kind of thing happens with regularity in the ordinary world of business, politics, media…in the western world. Corporate executives ram themselves into the merciless maw of the Internet by posting an un-PR-approved message on their blog (think Netflix). Fortunately the consequences for corporate PR disasters are never so severe as what is taking place in Afghanistan now due to the ham-handed handling of the Koran burning there.
  • But there is a lesson to be learned here, and it is really a bitter one, and that is that public relations is more than just a “nicety,” more than just a slick Madison Avenue-type trickery for pulling the wool over people’s eyes, more than just biased flackery.
  • In this case, in Afghanistan, a good public relations position on the wisdom of burning Korans — “extremist literature” is what the military called it, taken from prison libraries — would have been this: don’t do it. At least, don’t do it within sight of any Afghan nationals. Bundle them up, put them on an airplane, ship them the hell out of the country, incinerate them in some backyard barbecue pit at Langley, but for God’s sake — the God of western life, so routinely invoked in daily conversation, a figure of emphatic speech — don’t pitch them into the fire in front of the local help! In so doing, you invite the fiery wrath of the Islāmic faithful. What a disaster.
  • And yet, here is the rub: public relations in this case would have been of a preventive nature. Scoffed at, perhaps, as the province of the overly sensitive, the instinctively politically correct. Who knows? Useless to speculate from afar on people’s decisions in a world far different from that of the civilized west. And yet, it’s easy to see — in hindsight, of course — what one small ounce of sound, public relations prevention could have accomplished in the battle to win the hearts and minds of at least some in the Islāmic world.
  • Hindsight. One of the most important functions of good public relations, deployed in a timely fashion, is to cut the risk of looking back in sorrow at actions taken. That, it seems to me, makes PR more of a necessity, less of a luxurious nicety.


Culture Wars: Burning of the Korans

Barack Obama Apology to Afghanistan

Afghans Vent Fury Over Koran Burning


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2 Responses to “Run It By The PR People”

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I agree, government-sponsored book-burnings are a bad idea a la Nazi Germany, and other examples throughout history. However, this sounds to me like the U.S. had good reason to want these books taken out of circulation. They could apparently be of aid to the enemy. So they weren’t just plain Korans, they were books containing inserted messages of a type that could bring harm to U.S. personnel. That’s the interpretation made by the U.S. military, no reason to doubt it. Putting the books to the fire in Afghanistan has resulted in people getting killed, including U.S. soldiers for no good reason. I don’t believe this was done in a provocative way; I believe it was done in an unthinking way. Anyway, I’m no fan of government book burning either, but this was not an instance where the government was trying to ban any particular book from being read. Just a ham-handed way of taking out the garbage.


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