June 14, 2012
Syrian Violence Spurs Questions About PR's Portrayal of President Assad's "Glamorous" and Accessible Lifestyle: Firms Such as DC's Brown Lloyd James Have Made Big Bucks Over the Last 20 Years Burnishing the Assads' Image In Western Media
Journalists in Syria today are regularly threatened and harassed when they attempt to uncover the government's decades-long repression — which is a far cry from those scribes who have reported on the glamorous lifestyle and open accessibility of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his family in recent years. And therein lies the impact of government-affiliated public relations — with the help of high-priced PR advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, Assad and his family have sought to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous, the NY Times reports. Preferential treatment of world leaders in the media is nothing new, but the Assads have been especially determined to burnish their image — and have hired experts to do so. Lifestyle magazines and online outlets have published feel-good features about Assad and his wife Asma, often focusing on their glamorous lives. For example, in March of 2011 — just as Assad and his security forces initiated a brutal crackdown on political opponents that has led to the death of an estimated 10,000 Syrians — Vogue magazine ran a flattering profile of the first lady, describing her as walking "a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles," a reference to her Christian Louboutin heels. The Assad family paid the DC-based PR firm Brown Lloyd James $5,000 a month to act as a liaison between Vogue and the first lady, according to the firm. The Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media — the president, a trained ophthalmologist, received part of his education in Britain, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York. The campaign to make the ruling family the face of a more Westernized and open Syria began in 2006, when Mrs. Assad approached the PR firm Bell Pottinger in London. Tim Bell, a co-founder of the firm and a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said Mrs. Assad contacted the firm after several first ladies, including Laura Bush, began to hold annual meetings and conferences. "She wanted to be a part of that club," Bell told the Times.
This web of politics and public relations ensnared Barbara Walters recently. After she conducted an aggressive interview with Assad on ABC News in December, she offered to provide recommendations for Sheherazad Jaafari, the president's press aide and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, who was applying for a job at CNN and admission to Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Walters issued a statement this week expressing regret for her actions, which she called "a conflict," the NY Times reports.
Jaafari, who has been accepted by Columbia, had worked as an intern at Brown Lloyd James. Last year, she expressed her feelings about the Assad family in an email to Mike Holtzman, a partner at the firm who worked closely with the Clinton and Bush administrations. "I have always told you — this man is loved by his people," Jaafari wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by the British newspaper The Guardian. Holtzman replied: "I'm proud of you. Wish I were there to help," he said, report Times writers Bill Carter and Amy Chozick.
A few years later, positive articles began to appear. Paris Match called Mrs. Assad an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones" and the "eastern Diana." French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics, and in 2009, The Huffington Post published an article and fashion slide show titled "Asma al-Assad: Syria's First Lady and All-Natural Beauty." None of the articles about Mrs. Assad struck a nerve quite like the 3,200-word March 2011 profile in Vogue titled "A Rose in the Desert." In it, the writer, Joan Juliet Buck, called Mrs. Assad "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," according to the Times article.
Buck told the Times that shortly after the profile was published, she began "steadily speaking out against the Assad regime," including in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN and elsewhere. In April, on National Public Radio, Buck said she regretted the headline that Vogue put on the article. But she said Mrs. Assad was "extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue," the Times reports.