Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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The Flak: A PR Journey

Public Relations: That Dirty Word

"I'm not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department. I'm a saloon keeper."
--Rick Blaine, in the film Cassablanca, 1942

Never a revolutionary, I was more an accidental tourist. As life's dots were connected over the years, it was by happenstance that I ended up most often where people wanted to overthrow their government. When landowners become oligarchs, the peasants become revolutionaries.

This is not my phase, but the words of a Jesuit priest I met in El Salvador. He was later killed, allegedly by a right-wing death squad.  Some succeed in their revolution.  Most don't.

Today in Kiev, Ukraine there are protests in the streets. It is an assortment of interests, and that is probably why their desire for revolutionary upheaval will not succeed. Having the will for change is simply insufficient. It takes a collective idea. It takes a reasonable alternative, and that is lacking. Arguably and very marginally the standard of living in Ukraine has risen over the last few years.

For the better part of a decade, I have settled in Kiev, Ukraine and Moscow, Russia. I divide my time between the two where we have offices of The Willard Group, a public relations and advertising company.  My feelings about revolution are personal ones, based on my own history.

I recall arriving in a chaotic Tehran, Iran [i]  nearly a quarter a century ago. The revolutionaries wore black and gray. We wore casual khaki and blazers that made us stick out like dripping fudge Popsicle sticks in the hot sun.  They looked angry and possessed.  We looked curious.

Everyone was tense, even inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy where we stayed the night.  We didn't feel danger, however, even though we had to board helicopters for a meeting with the Shah of Iran at the royal palace.  The streets, the Embassy warned us, would compromise our safety.

Ambassador William Sullivan looked to my boss, Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd, suggesting he release a strong statement the Shah would survive as ruler.  We had stayed up most of the night debating the issue. I was on the side of those who felt the Shah was in an impossible situation, and didn't at all feel a ringing endorsement could salvage his reign. In fact, depending on the audience, it might even hasten his downfall. I wasn't alone in that camp. Hoyt Purvis, Byrd's chief foreign policy strategist, voiced the same opinion.

Byrd, whose son-in-law was Iranian, declined the Ambassador's suggestion. Using a secure line in the embassy, the Senate Leader called President Jimmy Carter, summarized the situation, and told him of his decision.  Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had been a loyal ally, and Carter was understandably disappointed, though indicated he understood.

The next day, Byrd had lunch with the Shah and his queen, and we then flew on to Cairo. A few months later, the Shah went into exile as the people took to the streets, sweeping the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

That was a revolution. It had many causes, among them the opulence of the Shah's rule and the resurgence of conservative religious fervor. It had a foundation.  The people felt they had a credible alternative.

I recall those days in Tehran now as people gather on Kreschatic in downtown Kiev to urge the removal of President Leonid Kuchma.  However well intentioned they are, the fire in the belly is stoked by partisans safely away from the flame. This is not to say they are wrong, mere irrelevant in this particular Byzantine process.

I have been a bystander and chronicler of much upheaval, whether a civil rights disturbance in America's south, or rebellions from Tehran, to San Salvador, to Managua. I saw the aftermath of Sloban Milosevic's aggression in Sarajevo, shortly after the Bosnian War when I worked briefly as an advisor to the then Prime Minister.

But, in all those instances, I was a voyeur, either working as a reporter, a congressional fact finder or an advisor. Eastern Europe, though, was to be more than a 20-minute layover. It became my home.

I have a Ukrainian family. I drink vodka, no longer Tennessee sour mash. Most of my friends are Ukrainian and Russian. My investment in Eastern Europe's future is more than monetary. As much as any non-Ukrainian can, I feel part of the country's soul. This probably appropriates more cultural identity than necessary, but the fact is, I care for the people and the country. I love the excitement of being part of change.

In the past, I sometimes became emotionally involved in conflict, but it was always more a dream sequence. I remember on one particular day lunching with guerilla commandants in a safe house on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and for the evening meal, sitting with the aggrieved Nicaraguan government in Managua that hunted those they called the Contra jackals.

On a smog-laden afternoon, I had a clandestine meeting with Salvadorian leftist guerilla leaders in a hotel room in Mexico City. The next day I was sipping whiskey with U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton and officials of the right-wing ARENA party whose death squads many believed hunted those same rebels.

I sat down to a meal at the private residence of the late Panama strongman Omar Torrijos, and sitting next to me was then Interior Minister and later the country's infamous leader, Manuel Noriega. Both men met tragic ends, one in a suspicious airplane crash, the other by ending up in a United States' prison for being, basically, a common drug dealer. 

I moved with ease between and among the lines. When the planes struck the World Trade Center, I was in Bucharest, Romania, counseling the secretary general of the ruling Socialist Party on political and media issues.

Always, upon landing in D.C., there was comfort in being back in the land of the junk food junkie. Back where there were McDonalds' burgers to be wolfed down, a new car to buy, a latest movie to attend. 

That was then. Today, I am no longer the accidental tourist. I remain always the flak, but one, I hope, with a conscience that roars.


[i] Hoyt Purvis today is director of the Fulbright School of Foreign Relations at the University of Arkansas

3. Both men became rich due to Y&R going public, and later the acquisition by WPP. Bell later became President/CEO of Cousins, a large southern real estate conglomerate, and Cogman became a consultant in Arizona.

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