As the world watches in horror, a refugee crisis for the ages is unfolding across Europe. On a human scale, the tragedy is unbearable to observe. We have not seen this level of displacement since records began to be kept. Wars across Africa, the Middle East and Asia are causing Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Iraqis to flee for their lives.
Where are they going, and why do they want to go there? Most admit to a preference for Sweden, or for Germany. Germany is taking in an unprecedented number of refugees. Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden and Ireland are all target destinations for the refugee families. We are taking in 10,000 people.
Yet even in this very real and still unfolding crisis, where people are fleeing for their lives, hoping for and believing in new beginnings, the heavy hand of political maneuvering is taking effect. PR is kicking in, and the messages coming to us via main-stream media have been well crafted and shaped.
Why is PR so important in the Refugee Crisis?
Politics goes hand in glove with public relations and media, shaping the story, and telling the story. Since 1800 BC in the lands of Ancient Babylon, PR and media relations have been a vital component of political life. Back then, it was known as the art of rhetoric and of persuasive speaking.
We know that former President Andrew Jackson, our seventh President (1829-1837), used former newspaper editor Amos Kendall as a close advisor. Kendall’s practices are still in use today – polls, speech writing, and article handouts are a direct legacy from Kendall to us.
President Grover Cleveland, who was both our 22nd President (1885-1889) and our 24th President, (1893-1897), used another newspaper journalist by the name of George F. Parker, to manage his public image and craft his message. Cleveland’s speeches were issued in advance, which earned him increased media share and approval ratings.
A Mixed Political Message
So, what then, is the political message being sent to us, regarding the refugee crisis? What target audience is that political message being aimed at?
While the message is mixed at this point, the target audience appears to be exclusively liberal. Conservatives are adamant that the refugee crisis is someone else’s problem. Some countries are telling us that they are opening their borders and their coffers to take care of the refugees, chief among these being Angela Merkel’s Germany. Austria is being generous, as is the United Kingdom. Impoverished Ireland is not putting any upper limit to the number of refugees it will take in. It goes without saying that the PR image of any country offering refuge will achieve a major global boost. Why then has Germany decided to curtail its generosity? Not only has that country announced that it will not be taking any further refugees, it has begun policing its border.
The Plight of Hungary
Along with Hungary, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are currently hosting many of the close to four million refugees. Yet Hungary stands alone as an unwelcoming entity. The country is being viewed poorly for a perceived lack of compassion toward the fleeing hordes.
Hungary is compounding the PR hit by failing to craft an effective PR response. The underlying story probably lies somewhere between being compassionate to the refugees and between being sensible about the available resources.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban is reportedly concerned that the Muslim refugees will adversely affect his country, which has a long tradition of Christianity. He does not want to deploy scarce resources on feeding and housing the refugees. Indeed, the camps are reminiscent of Nazi Germany. He has even directed the Hungarian media not to broadcast images of child refugees, because this garners too much sympathy. Orban wants to contain, if not curtail, this sympathy. The Hungarian Press is likening the influx of refugees to a ‘Siege.’
Trainloads of refugees are passing through Hungary every day. Some are being removed from the trains and taken to local camps for processing. To the over-stressed refugees, this beauracracy is incomprehensible. Overcrowded conditions in the camps are painful. People feel trapped, cold and hungry. Many are becoming ill.
The images are streaming live to us daily. The image of Hungary and of the Hungarian people has been severely damaged. Without an effective PR campaign, our generation will continue to have a poor internal picture of the country.
The Gulf States have not been welcoming at all to refugees. There is no focus on that fact in the main-stream media. Why not? Simply put, these are extremely wealthy countries with access to the best in PR messaging. Their response to date has been that they are donating funds to refugee organizations.
Among the European countries receiving the fewest asylum requests are Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Iceland.
Hungary and Germany should remember that once a political image has been defined, it will live on for generations.
Margaret Mulvihill is Director of Communications at Lawson Mulvihill in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/political_pr