Venezuelan propaganda infects and undermines Latin American PR professional organizations

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro at the VII Summit of the Americas. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Many Latin American governments have routinely indulged in anti-American propaganda, and the increasingly tense relationship between Venezuela and the United States has recently produced a high volume of inflammatory rhetoric.

What is disturbing about this trend is the effects on some Latin American public relations and trade association professionals, who are echoing anti-American talking points in defiance of best PR practices.

Taking a side of a political and economic international conflict is always a treacherous proposition. It is even more treacherous for PR professionals or trade associations which should be striving to rise above negative perceptions that they are manipulated by spin doctors.

The increased volume of Venezuelan government-crafted propaganda was apparent before the Organization of American States (OAS) VII Summit of the Americas hosted by Panama, which began on Friday, and continues today, with US President Obama attending.

Unfortunately, anti-US propaganda has come not only from Venezuela but from the venerable Inter-American Confederation of Public Relations, which goes by the Spanish acronym CONFIARP, an advising non-governmental organization of OAS, the United Nations and Latin American Integration Association. CONFIARP claims to represent public relations and strategic communicators on the subcontinent, including an array of diverse national associations with a marked South American representation.

CONFIARP has long history of professionalism

CONFIARP was founded in Mexico in 1960 under another name and is a member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA). Therefore, it subscribes to the GA Code of Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations. The GA “believes in and supports the free exercise of human rights, especially freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the media, which are essential to the practice of good public relations.”

However, in a written declaration dated March 15, 2015, Rosa María Pérez Gutiérrez, the Cuban president of CONFIARP, claiming to speak on behalf of the organization, clearly sides with the Venezuelan government.

The document titled “Declaration of CONFIARP in Favor of Peace and Integrity of Venezuela as a Nation” reads as a political pamphlet. It includes phrases like: “economic war without truce to cause discontent among the people”; “the suspect collapse of oil prices in the international market”; “the media war to undermine the noble efforts of a country to maintain the union”; and “calls all public relations professionals and social communicators of the continent to apply their professional skills to use, once again, the tools that we dominate to wake up the conscience, to mobilize willingness, and to unleash citizen participation in defense of homeland of (Simón) Bolívar, (the liberator of Venezuela), which is also the defense of the integrity and sovereignty of our countries.”

The effect on the OAS Summit

This foreshadows the anti-American propagandist talking points and other coordinated tactics during the Summit of the Americas. Venezuelan and Cuban governments backers clashed with opposition supporters and families of political prisoners even before the summit began, and Venezuela withdrew from a summit forum in support of Cuba.

The CONFIARP declaration is a worrisome reminder of the power of communication and its potential for abuse by all types of regime and interests. It has implications beyond public relations and communication management. It shows how political operatives can use democratic means to manipulate hearts and minds.

The declaration has been rejected by many representatives of professional and academic communities in Latin America. To add to the controversy, the document was written and distributed by CONFIARP’s president without the consultation of her board of directors. In fact, two vice presidents of the confederation from Colombia and Uruguay have publicly rejected the tone and content of the document.

Despite strong professional and academic denunciation of the inappropriateness and the damaging nature of the declaration, the confederation has not retracted it. Nor has it heeded requests to restate its position about the complex relationship between the United States and Venezuela in a more conciliatory and constructive manner.

This should cause concern for both national public relations associations in the region and the GA. These professional groups work diligently for the advancement and recognition of public relations as a strategic managerial practice and area of study.

Modern PR thrives on democratic ideals

Modern public relations is based on democratic principles and thrives in societies where economic, political and social freedoms reign, as well as in societies where multiple voices are heard and compete for attention. The declaration author or authors ignored these principles.

Yet good public relations practices are being researched and taught in many programs in Latin America. I have been a site-team evaluator and have personally assessed education programs and recommended the Public Relations Society of America’s certification of academic public relations programs in Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

The role of a professional or trade association is to represent, advocate and work towards the advancement of the practice and its professionals. Their role includes the promotion of debates, research and education in the strategic and ethical use of the public relations functions in all types of organizations. The CONFIARP declaration undermines these roles.

In my research in Latin America on the evolution and social roles of the profession of public relations, I have found that public relations professionals struggle to be authentic representatives of PR best practices. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay all support excellent PR practitioners. A regional confederation that takes a defiant and biased political position as representative of the profession in the entire subcontinent is a travesty.

The CONFIARP’s action may be evidence of the ideological tentacles of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes in an effort to influence public opinion in the continent. This ideological intervention has no place in a profession that advocates for so many causes and organizations.