Targets missed: Polish Foundation’s USD 5.5 mln PR campaign

The Polish National Foundation (PFN) has paid over USD 5.5 mln over the last months to a US-based PR agency for promoting Poland abroad.

The PFN is a body set up by the state and funded by the largest 17 state-owned corporations. It currently administers resources worth around EUR 50 mln. Its remit is to promote Poland and its narrative abroad.

PR contract in the US

According to an investigation by the Onet website the PFN has paid over USD 5.5 mln over a period of just over a year to a US PR agency White House Writers Group (WHWG). The money represents fees paid for work in promoting Poland in the US and online.

The money claimed by the company is based on a contract that was signed nearly two years ago. According to the website, the profiles which have been set up and managed by WHWG on Instagram, Youtube and other social media are failing to attract significant amounts of viewers and subscribers.

WHWG is also alleged to be claiming credit for arranging meetings which were in fact organised by the Polish Embassy.

The PR agency was set up by Clark Judge, a former communications advisor to President Reagan and Philip Hughes, a former US ambassador to Barbados. It was contracted to help explain, among other things, Poland’s narrative on its history and judicial reforms.

WHWG is not committed to attaining any specific goals or targets in the contract it has with the PFN. It is expected to organise conferences, seminars and meetings for which it claims expenses in addition to the USD 90,000 monthly fee – from the earlier USD 45,000 – it collects as a retainer. But that retainer fee is a small element of the overall costs compared to the charges for travel, meals, events and outsourced services.

Results questioned

According to Onet, WHWG’s efforts have not produced satisfactory results in terms of social media presence with a Twitter account being observed by only 6,000 and an Instagram account only has 51 followers. The biggest event organised by WHWG, a conference on the partnership between Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II failed to attract anyone from the US administration except for a former US ambassador to the Vatican.

The Polish website also checked on the working lunches which WHWG claims to have arranged. It found that two of them were in fact organised by the Polish Embassy in Washington DC as part of its routine activities in inviting US officials. The Embassy denies that any other organisation was involved in organising these events and expressed surprise that WHWG should claim otherwise.

The US PR agency also reports that is has engaged in liaising with the press and briefing the media. An example of the effects of this work cited is an interview given by a WHWG staffer to a Catholic local radio in Michigan. No other examples are cited in the report or of any specific contacts with US think tanks or business organisations. The company does, however, report it has assisted the PFN in an advertising campaign and that it is working to secure a site for a statue in Washington DC commemorating Poland’s victorious war with the Red Army in 1920.

All quiet during the Holocaust storm in 2018?

No evidence is cited of any significant activities during the spring of 2018 when Poland endured a major communications crisis over the Defamation law which included a penalisation clause for accusing Poles of being complicit in the Holocaust. That law was challenged by both Israel and the US as a potential threat to freedom of speech and research and later amended.

This is rather surprising since the PFN itself made it a priority in the contract signed with WHWG for “rebutting false narratives on Polish complicity with the Holocaust which threaten Polish security and blacken the reputation of the country.” Other priorities in the contract included explaining the reasons for Polish judicial reforms and Poland’s approach to the migration crisis in Europe.

PFN responds

PFN has itself refused to reveal details of the contract signed with WHWG or details of expenditures. However, the information is accessible in the US as a result of public disclosure required of all lobbyists in that country.

The PFN claims a very wide outreach for its information campaigns such “Today we are still on the side of truth” and “Testimony of Truth”, citing that the films have reached 180 million people the world over. This however is not a result of the work on the WHWG contract and the sum seems to be referring to the total of openings rather than total of people reached.

Responding to questions by Onet, the PFN stated that it was “disappointed” the website showed little interest in the effectiveness of the project WHWG is working on in the US and concentrated purely on the financials. It argues that as a result of WHWG activities, the PFN has been able to reach out to many important US think tanks, influencers and media.

PFN says that the work of the WHWG is critical to explaining the Polish narrative in a way understandable to the American “cultural code”. In order to do that it is essential to work with experts in many walks of life, secure quality translation and interpretation by bilingual specialists. This costs considerable amounts of money as do activities such as conferences, study tours and advertising campaigns. All these, the PFN claims, are monitored and evaluated thoroughly for visible effects.

Comment:

Extensive PR campaigns do cost money. Their effects are sometimes visible some way into the future. This is why sums being described by Onet.pl are not really the central issue here, even if they make the headlines.

Nevertheless, the PFN must expect questions to be asked about such spending and its effectiveness. Onet.pl have produced a critical report which obviously needs more than just a terse response saying that a lot is happening and it is up to the website to find out exactly what.

No, it is up to PFN to describe the work and to show its effects, or to at least state clearly what these effects are expected to be. It is using public funds and it is itself a public body and therefore must be accountable not only to its funders but also to the public.


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