Last year R&R Partners–the agency best known for the “What Happens in Vegas” tagline–picked up a less conventional client: the government of South Sudan.
R&R, which was founded by former Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush advisor/ad man/U.S. ambassador to Iceland Sig Rogich, provides a range of services to its various partners. As noted in this January 2015 post from PR trade blog O’Dwyer’s, the very new country of South Sudan hired the agency to do work related to “development of a message platform, influencer outreach, editorial services, crisis communications, [and] media training.”
The purpose of the one-year, $900,000 deal was to help the world’s youngest democracy better interact with the United States after its democratically elected government (created in 2011 after a U.S.-supported referendum on independence) signed a truce of sorts with a rebel group that had officially waged war against that government since 2013 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians.
One more visible aspect of the contract involved running this Twitter account, which last tweeted one year ago.
— Stand Up South Sudan (@StandUpSSudan) July 13, 2015
R&R’s work for South Sudan has reappeared in the news this month thanks to both an increase in violence and the release of this Center for Public Integrity report questioning whether South Sudan’s agency partners had properly complied with a law requiring U.S. companies to announce their plans to act on behalf of a foreign government. Those partners include R&R along with Podesta Group, which was founded by longtime Democratic Party fundraiser Tony Podesta. (His brother John is currently Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.)
South Sudan ranks second on a respected list of the world’s most fragile states, and violence has increased there in recent months after a period of (very relative) stability, with the United Nations and the African Union now making plans to put more peacekeeping forces in the country. 5 million people in South Sudan are currently in need of humanitarian assistance in the form of food or basic medical supplies.
The controversy central to the Center for Publicity Integrity piece is the fact that the South Sudan government, which now claims to be broke, managed to spend $2.1 million on these agency partners between late 2014 and the end of 2015. It’s fairly standard practice for struggling governments to hire U.S. PR firms that specialize in international diplomacy and crisis communications in order to improve their relationships with the United States, but it’s less common for an ad agency to join the mix.
The piece itself is a long read, but it notes that various congressmen in both major parties have encouraged the federal government to continue or strengthen an ongoing arms embargo, thereby preventing the South Sudanese government from using U.S. aid money to buy weapons. John Kerry and various spokespeople for the current administration claim that the U.S. continues to fully support the government of South Sudan, noting that various sanctions have been in place for several years.
This is the sort of interminable, endlessly complex situation that frustrates even those most experienced in international relations. The CPI report states: “Those advocating a more vigorous stance contend that the lobbying and PR created a misleading narrative that contributes to the current paralysis.”
The issue is debatable, but for this post the point is that R&R chose to work with the government of South Sudan and that the agency now defends the work it did.
“R&R Partners was engaged by the democratically-elected government of the Republic of South Sudan, a new country that pursued its independence under United States guidance,” a spokesperson writes in response to our query about the nature of the now-completed relationship between the two parties.
The statement continues: “We were engaged during the internationally-led peace talks with rebel forces, with the goal of encouraging lasting peace at a time when both sides were working toward that end. We were hopeful that an end to the civil war would come in time to redirect aid to address growing famine and a looming financial crisis, and encouraged policymakers to avoid sanctions as the tenuous peace process progressed. Sadly, we have seen a return to conflict, and the predicted humanitarian disaster. We stand behind our work and our intentions, and continue to hope for peace in the Republic of South Sudan.”
Various parties told the Center for Public Integrity’s Erin Quinn that they see all U.S. entities doing business with the South Sudanese government as “[beneficiaries] of a war situation” and accused them of making “blatantly, patently false” statements regarding the country.
The central purpose of R&R’s work was to minimize the effects of sanctions that might limit the country’s ability to do business with the United States–arms business included. “The firm’s consultants contacted dozens of members of Congress, congressional staff, State Department officials, think tanks and nonprofits to discuss the issues of sanctions and the peace process, disclosures show,” but their efforts ultimately did not succeed as the Obama administration has repeatedly renewed and/or extended those sanctions.
The CPI piece notes that former Colorado governor Bill Owens was among those who worked on the account and that he made $50,000 in doing so. The government also worked with Watts Partners, a lobbying firm founded by former football player and Republican house member J.C. Watts, along with D.C.-based consultancy KRL International.
R&R had the biggest single contract among the aforementioned agencies. The company, which does not list all of its clients on its website, has worked with Los Vegas’ Animal Foundation, data storage giant WD and Boeing in addition to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.