Shooting the Messenger – the Free Tibet Campaign gets it spectacularly wrong

The Free Tibet Campaign’s recent threat to agitate against any PR consultancy that chooses to work for the Chinese government was a PR own-goal, and arguably not its only one this year.

By threatening to bring to bear the wrath of populist opinion against any consultancy that might dare to help the Chinese government make its case, the campaign exposed an ugly, brutish side to its nature. It was effectively threatening to militate against freedom of speech and, in so doing, mimicking its protagonists in Beijing and diluting considerably its own claim to the moral high-ground.

I am a Zimbabwean but, by virtue of my caucasian roots, discriminated against and hounded from the land of my birth by the ZANU regime. I am a victim of ethnic cleansing and this gives me an up-close and personal reason to despise despotic states.

But while I could never personally work for oppressive governments like those holding sway in China, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe or even, dare I say it, Saudi Arabia or Russia, I believe they have a right to be represented in the court of public opinion. Because when we start saying that someone’s case cannot and should not be heard, what differentiates us from the absolutist totalitarians we profess to despise?

The campaign is walking the tightrope of effectiveness. Tone down its activities too far and it risks losing impact. Ratchet them up and it risks being dismissed as reactionary and cranky.

Society cannot allow pressure groups, no matter how just or well-meaning their cause, to dictate whose opinions can and cannot be heard. And as for PR representation, surely it’s up to us alone to decide whether we can stomach representing these regimes? And that should be a moral decision freely made.

In targeting PR consultancies and threatening the livelihood of any that might relish the challenge of presenting the case for China’s actions, the Free Tibet Campaign overlooks completely the positive role that a capable and responsible consultancy might play in helping to encourage and shape positive change in China’s behaviour. After all, any PR practitioner worth his or her salt knows full well that no matter how much lipstick is applied to a pig, the end result is still, well, a pig.

The best way to change the perception of any regime’s behaviour is to encourage change in the behaviour itself. I’m not naive enough to believe that a well-intentioned PR consultancy is likely to secure the liberation of Tibet overnight, but reasoned argument within the tent is likely to be far more persuasive and influential with a regime as sensitive to ‘face’ as China’s, than a thousand Joanna Lumleys protesting outside it.

The Free Tibet Campaign is walking the tightrope of effectiveness. Tone down its activities too far and it risks losing impact. Ratchet its efforts up a notch and it risks being dismissed as reactionary and cranky. My view, for what it’s worth, is that there’s a bit too much ratcheting going on at the moment. The dark threat to PR consultancies was just one PR mis-step. The saga of the Olympic Flame is arguably another.

While the campaign’s actions around the worldwide wanderings of the Olympic Flame have certainly raised global attention to the plight of Tibet, I can’t help wondering whether some of its more militant actions might have detracted somewhat from support for the campaign in the quarters that count. In the UK, at least, there is a tangible sense that it has over-stepped the mark slightly. Bashing Bobbies on the bonce is really not The Great British Way of Doing Things.

Ghandi got it right. If you want to resist authority do everything you can to be the antithesis of that authority. The moral high ground is sacred turf. It’s not to be used as a vantage point from which to shoot the messenger.

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