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Spin Doctors To The World : The Sawyer Miller Group Uses The Tricks Of Political Campaigns To Change The Way You Think About Foreign Governments, Big Business And Any Client In Need Of An Image Lift

November 24, 1991|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is a Times national correspondent. A collection of his articles, "Shades of Gray," will be published in March by Bantam Books.

HERE IS A STORY JACK LESLIE PLAINLY ENJOYS TELLING: The then-president of Colombia, Virgilio Barco Vargas, is sitting one morning in February, 1988, in the private, wood-paneled library on the third floor of Casa de Narino, his country's presidential palace in the old part of Bogota. Across from Barco Vargas are those who helped him get elected two years before--Leslie and other members of the discreet, low-profile New York-based firm called the Sawyer Miller Group. The subject under discussion is Barco Vargas' desire to counter his country's image as a compliant haven for the world's largest drug empire, the Medellin cartel. The need to do so goes beyond matters of pride and prestige, for election-year rhetoric in the United States is mounting against Colombia, threatening critical foreign investment and trade relations. Barco Vargas wants people to understand that his country is indeed fighting the drug lords. He wants people to understand that his country is full of dedicated heroes and leaders. He wants people to understand that drug users in the United States are creating the demand for the cartel's product. But Leslie has something of a problem: Before him is poll research showing that 76% of Americans think the Colombian government is corrupt and 80% want sanctions imposed. Sawyer Miller is a devout believer in poll research.

You can't ignore those figures, Leslie tells Barco Vargas. You can't just show what action Colombia is taking against drug dealers. It would look like propaganda. It won't work. You have to appreciate public opinion on this. You are seen as a villain. First we must show you as a victim. Then a hero. Then a leader. Only after that do you point the finger at the United States for creating the demand for drugs.

Barco Vargas and his aides are hesitant--governments do not enjoy portraying themselves as victims--but understanding. The first ad, appearing that spring, features a photo of newspaper editor Guillermo Cano's funeral. The next offers the photo of a memorial to those killed fighting the drug lords. The third, a highly stylized black-and-white television spot using existing news footage, depicts a bullet-riddled car, a coffin, mourners. Then, and only then, does a fourth ad finally swing the focus to the idea of United States demand. The photo is of a young woman snorting a line of cocaine, and the caption reads, "Drug User or Drug Terrorist?"

"Look at the press clips from then on," Leslie says, recollecting that 1988 Colombia campaign as he sits now in his office at Sawyer Miller headquarters on East 60th Street in mid-Manhattan. "News stories, columns, editorials, all start talking more and more about demand." Savoring the accomplishment, Leslie, a polished and collected 37-year-old, leans forward in his chair--brushing past bookshelves lined with titles such as "Milking the Public," "Talking Back to the Media," "The Third Wave"--and pops a videotape into a player. On the monitor, an "ABC World News Tonight" segment featuring Sawyer Miller's television spot for Colombia begins. To get to his firm's ad, though, Leslie has to endure anchorman Peter Jennings' introduction. As he does so, much of the pleasure drains from his eyes.

Jennings describes the spot as a "gambit." Colombia, he says, "is waging a campaign to improve its image . . . with the help from"--here Jennings barely arches his brows and adds a faint inflection to his voice--"a Madison Avenue ad agency."

Leslie studies the monitor sorrowfully. Jennings just doesn't understand. Sawyer Miller is not an ad agency, not a PR firm, not a lobbyist, Leslie will tell you. What Sawyer Miller does is not dishonorable. "Cynical," Leslie says, shaking his head at the anchorman. "Snide."

SO IT OFTEN GOES FOR THE SAWYER MILLER GROUP, A FIRM that takes cocky delight in its deeds even while others find its agenda hard to embrace. Although only a campaign junkie is likely to have heard of the Sawyer Miller Group--for years it was among the top political media consulting firms for Democratic candidates--its name is now starting to pop up in the most varied and ambiguous of circumstances. Offering a blurred blend of research, management consulting, advertising, public relations and indirect lobbying--which, combined, it calls "strategic communications consulting" but others consider old-fashioned spin-doctoring--Sawyer Miller proposes to spread the techniques of American political campaigns to broader realms. The goal is nothing less than to shape how people act and think.

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