USA: Hill and Knowlton, public relations for big oil, big war and big torture

This video is called Gulf War 1: Fake “Incubator Babies” Propaganda Sends America To War.

From ART FOR A CHANGE blog in the USA:

LACMA & the Spin Doctors from Hell

I’m not sure just when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the services of the high-powered public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. (H&K), but I first noticed the PR firm’s name included as a media contact on an official LACMA press release dated Feb. 3, 2006. …

When LACMA made known on March 6, 2007, that oil giant BP had given $25 million to the museum – LACMA’s official press release again included H&K as a media contact.

I have absolutely no objections to LACMA using a PR firm to effectively promote itself, nor would I criticize an individual for doing the same – but Hill and Knowlton, Inc. has a long and controversial roster of clients that I think readers of my web log should be aware of.

A leading public relations corporation, H&K has 71 offices in 40 countries, with specialists in “crisis & issues management” as well as the oil and petrochemical industry.

After reading some of the following, you may wonder what on earth has been going on behind closed doors at LACMA’s board of directors meetings.

Hill and Knowlton, Inc. became infamous over its dealings with the tobacco industry in the 1950s.

In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice finally sued the tobacco industry for $280 billion in damages, arguing that in 1953, the five major cigarette manufacturers met with “public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.” …

Lord of the lies; how Hill and Knowlton’s Robert Gray pulls Washington’s strings, written by Susan B. Trento and published by the Washington Monthly in Sept, 1992, detailed much of the PR firm’s skullduggery under the chairmanship of Gray.

Trento wrote that for 30 years, Hill and Knowlton, “set a standard – not a particularly high one for what Washington lobbying can get away with (….)

Whether the client was Haiti’s ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier or the Church of Scientology, the only criterion was that the client paid – and paid well.”

Sheila Tate, a former H&K employee and later Nancy Reagan’s press secretary, described the PR firm as a “company without a moral rudder” for its controversial client list.

The Center for Public Integrity published a 1992 report titled, The Torturers’ Lobby, describing the use of PR firms by repressive regimes (view in .pdf …)

Hill and Knowlton, Inc. topped the list of earnings, making $14 million in one year by representing governments that abuse human rights like China, Indonesia, Egypt, Peru, and Turkey.

Human Rights groups have long condemned Turkey for abusing its citizens of Kurdish origin, but the center’s report stated that H&K earned $1.2 million from Turkey between 1991-1992. …

In May of 2005, Agence France-Presse reported that H&K signed a $600,000 contract with the government of Uganda, to “improve Uganda’s stained reputation as a human rights abuser and democracy laggard.”

In December of 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked 40 tons of lethal gas over the city, in what was to become the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Some 8,000 people died in the first few days, and approximately 20,000 are believed to have perished in the aftermath.

Today over 120,000 people in Bhopal continue to suffer health problems as a result of the disaster – blindness, cancer, serious birth-defects, and other ailments.

A proper clean up of the plant and its environs has never taken place, and in Nov., 2004, the BBC reported that thousands of tons of toxic chemicals are still loose on the ground or held in open containers.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. handled Union Carbide’s PR troubles during the disaster, and H&K’s Executive Vice President, Richard C. Hyde, lead the “crisis management” team that assisted Union Carbide.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is currently the public relations firm for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the organization that represents the nuclear power industry. …

While we’re on the subject – when the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a partial core meltdown on March 28th, 1979, it was Hill & Knowlton, Inc. executive, Robert Dilenschneider, who was brought in to handle PR for the plant’s operators, Metropolitan Edison.

Hill & Knowlton, Inc. is probably most notorious for its work with the government of Kuwait in organizing and running the propaganda campaign aimed at getting the U.S. public to support military action against Iraq.

On August 2nd, 1990, Saddam Hussein began Iraq’s invasion and 7 month-long occupation of neighboring Kuwait.

Within a few days the Iraqis had completely overrun the Kuwaiti Armed Forces, and with more than 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and 700 tanks on Kuwait’s territory, the Kuwaiti Royal Family escaped to next door Saudi Arabia.

From exile the Kuwaiti government would employ as many as 20 PR firms in its campaign to mobilize U.S. public opinion (source: O’Dwyer’s PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991 – “H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause.”)

But the Kuwaitis would ultimately pay $10.8 million to H&K for a massive media blitz.

On October 10, 1990, H&K orchestrated the appearance of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, identified only as Nayirah, before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in Washington.

The youngster wept as she told of her harrowing experience in occupied Kuwait City.

“I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators.

They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

After Nayirah’s emotional testimony, President George H.W. Bush quoted her many times in addresses to the American people.

For instance, at a Nov. 1st., 1990 Republican rally in Massachusetts, he said of the Iraqi invaders, “They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism.

In one hospital, they pulled 22 premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.”

At an Oct. 16th, 1990, fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, he said of the Iraqi occupiers, “I don’t mean to be overly shocking here – but let me just mention some reports, firsthand reports. At a hospital, Iraqi soldiers unplugged the oxygen to incubators supporting 22 premature babies.

They all died. And then they shot the hospital employees.”

A number of Senators also used Nayirah’s testimony in the same way, and the shocking story was repeated innumerable times in radio, television, and newspaper reports.

After the war, investigations found absolutely no evidence to support the incubator claims.

As it turned out, Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and her father was Kuwait’s Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir Al-Sabah.

The youngster never worked at the al-Addan hospital and under no circumstances had been witness to the butchery she recounted.

Nayirah’s story was completely fabricated, and H&K’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached the teenager in false testimony [see also here]. …

If you take the time to conduct your own research, you’ll find information on many other controversies surrounding H&K.

In 1983 it managed PR for the building materials manufacturers, U.S. Gypsum, aimed at downplaying the connection between asbestos and health problems.

The firm took an estimated $5 million from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990 to wage an anti-abortion PR campaign.

In 2004 H&K began working with Wal-Mart in order to rehabilitate the image of the Union busting retail company [on its recent spying scandal, see here]. …

Likewise, while it’s not known exactly what H&K is doing for LACMA, insiders in the lobbying and public relations industry have a saying, “the best PR is invisible.”

So the next time you’re exposed to a radio spot, television news segment, magazine article, or glowing press review extolling LACMA and its big oil benefactor, you might be consuming propaganda from hired guns Hill and Knowlton, Inc.

When you read that Michael Govan, the director and CEO of LACMA, praised oil giant BP for “their commitment to sustainable energy,” you may have the feeling he was coached by the PR firm – and you just might be right.

Hill and Knowlton did not just play a role in war on Iraq, but also in war on Yugoslavia in the 1990s; see also here and here.

Saatchi & Saatchi used to work for Thatcher; now for new Labour: here.

See also A Century of Spin by David Miller and William Dinan.

Public relations for US war profiteer corporations: here.


20 thoughts on “USA: Hill and Knowlton, public relations for big oil, big war and big torture

  1. Author : Sterling Hager
    URL :

    Your post either proves that big establishment PR is doomed or that it is indestructible. In my post this morning in response to yours, at I argue that transparency will ultimately win out. Big PR wants to act like big legal counsel, believing everyone is entitled to a defense no matter what. That’s nonesense. The two disciplines are, or should be, entirely different. PR people are supposed to give advice about improved behavior.


  2. Dear Sterling Hager, sorry that my anti spam program rejected your comment at first. In re-posting it, I also corrected your URL (where there had been no space between “/” and “I”).


  3. The worldwide PR conspiracy
    (Sunday 14 September 2008)
    Alpha Dogs, by James Harding (Atlantic, £22)

    IN the 1980s, US admen started to sell politicians to electorates with techniques long used to sell soaps to consumers.

    It was just a matter of employing the power of television images to play on emotion, promote negative campaigning and focus on personality instead of policy. Does it sound familiar?

    To take an example, in 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had recently been assassinated after making peace proposals to the PLO.

    His Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was expected to win the subsequent election for prime minister.

    A US Republican tactician persuaded the opposition party Likud to end the tradition of 21 days of TV debates between candidates on policy issues.

    In the last three weeks of the campaign, the TV showed 25 seconds of footage of a bus blown up in Jerusalem by a suicide bomber, over and over again.

    Another shot showed frosted glass that shattered to reveal Peres walking hand in hand with Yasser Arafat. The message was clear. Israel was in peril and Peres was weak. He lost.

    Another US strategist gave the Dalai Lama a new advertising style to toughen US public opinion against China and promote Buddhism so that, one day, “his holiness will have done what the Polish Pope did in eastern Europe.”

    More on these global techniques and less on the lives of the PR men would have made this a better book. Author James Harding, the editor of The Times, gives credit to the image-makers for bringing politics into the TV lounge. His verdict ignores their ruthless distortion of truth and reason.



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