Tainting the brand: the Taleban take PR back to the stone age
If the Taleban were a product PR companies would be studying their tactics. Because they’ve certainly got massive “brand awareness”.
Aside from al-Qaida (and maybe not even them), they’re surely the most talked about armed group in the world.
Are the Taleban savvy marketeers? Well, not least because they’ve been responsible for 15 years of human rights violations in Afghanistan and Pakistan yes, they’ve certainly achieved notoriety and massive media attention. In press and publicity terms, their tactics have been crude. Killing large numbers of people nearly always gets you noticed (from Derrick Bird the Cumbrian killer, right through to dictators).
But is there also a more subtle side to their modus operandi? Because their reported offer to take part in a joint commission of inquiry with the UN and Nato into civilian deaths in Afghanistan suggests they’re certainly aware of basic PR issues. Recent UN data on Afghan civilian casualties has been used as “propaganda by the western media”, they say. They want to redress the balance.
But how serious is this? The Taleban may not like the way that reporters and politicians have taken up the fact that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has found them and other anti-government forces responsible for three quarters of Afghan civilian deaths (nearly 1,000) so far this year, but then they wouldn’t would they?
But if the Taleban to be involved in any inquiry into civilian deaths in Afghanistan they should accept that it will often be their people who could end up being investigated with a view to putting them on trial for war crimes.
Coming just a day or so after the Taleban stoned to death a 20-year-old woman and 28-year-old man for the “crime” of adultery, I think we’d have to say the Taleban are their own worst enemies when it comes to publicity. This was a grotesque and sickening crime and ought to blacken the Taleban’s name for years to come. Analysts believe that something like this happened – at least temporarily – after a video surfaced showing a Taleb in Pakistan publicly flogging a 17-year-old girl woman for a “moral” crime last year. Public opinion in Pakistan was revolted by their behaviour. Similarly, who on earth in the Taleban believes that killing aid workers (or claiming responsibility for killing aid workers) is either justified or good for their image?
In the Observer at the weekend James Fergusson reckoned the Taleban speak for a wide constituency in Afghanistan, but I wonder if the truth isn’t simply that the Taleban are better at instilling fear than anyone else in the country. (Fergusson also says UK troops shouldn’t die for Afghan women’s rights, yet it’s not why they’re there. Meanwhile, it’s surely right nevertheless that the international community supports the human rights of Afghan women where it can).
When it comes right down to it, the Taleban are more skilled in butchering people than in burnishing their image. Put simply: if groups don’t want bad publicity then they shouldn’t blow up civilians and stone to death young couples. (The same goes for Iran and the Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani case: stop all stoning and your reputation might actually improve).
On balance, if I were a brand expert I’d be saying to Mullah Omar: yes, take part in an Afghan civilian deaths inquiry but don’t expect your image to improve very much.
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