Blackwater Hires PR Giant in Image Seige
Friday, October 5, 2007; 5:17 PM
WASHINGTON -- Public relations giant Burson-Marsteller has vast experience steering companies through tough times. But there's a limit to how much it can help Blackwater USA, a new client that's been battered by negative publicity.
The State Department, which pays Blackwater hundreds of millions of dollars to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has stringent rules barring the private security contractor from discussing with the media the details of its work, according to those familiar with the arrangement.
Under those limitations, it's difficult to repair a corporate image, said one official close to Blackwater.
The department allows little room for error. On Sept. 16, Blackwater guards were involved in a shoot-out in Baghdad that left 13 Iraqis dead. Blackwater issued a statement to reporters saying its personnel acted lawfully and appropriately to a "hostile attack" from "armed enemies."
That statement was not cleared first with State officials, a move that prompted complaints from the department because the statement pre-empted official inquiries into the incident. The Iraqis have maintained the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation.
More recently, Erik Prince, Blackwater's top executive, appeared with department approval before a congressional committee investigating the company. Although Democrats on the committee were sharply critical of Prince, Blackwater representatives viewed his appearance as a rare and welcome opportunity to respond to their critics.
Even in a hostile hearing room, Prince could at least respond, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
Burson-Marsteller was brought aboard by the Washington law firms representing Blackwater _ McDermott Will & Emery and Crowell & Moring.
One of the Burson-Marsteller executives working on the Blackwater account is Robert Tappan, a former State Department official who joined Burson-Marsteller in July and is president of the company's Washington office.
At State, Tappan was deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. While at State, he spent six months in Baghdad as director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary governing body that disbanded in June 2004.
Paul Cordasco, a spokesman for Burson-Marsteller, said the company does not discuss its clients.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Burson-Marsteller clients have included cigarette maker Philip Morris, nuclear power plant owner Entergy and Allergan, the pharmaceutical company that makes Botox.