Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks PR Strategy

by PR Coach on January 9, 2011

Located not far from Number 10, Downing Street in London, the venerable British PR firm Winken, Blinken & Nodd has just been hired by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to devise a crisis management and public relations strategy.

Assange badly needs some good PR. He’s under attack by critics. Hunted by Interpol and the CIA for leaking US state secrets. Loved by any number of Swedish women. Both worshipped and reviled by the media who have benefited immensely by higher  newspaper circulation and skyrocketing TV ratings from his website’s incendiary disclosures.

According to some of our British media and PR sources, it’s no surprise that he’s looked to Winken, Blinken & Nodd for crisis PR advice. “After all, like any big PR firm, WB&N has worked with everyone from prime ministers and professional golfers to prostitutes, although we call them madams here in the UK,” chuckled one competitor at Shill & Molten.

“WB&N’s motto is ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity!’ and Julian will certainly find out that there’s no such thing as cheap publicity as well,” said a highly placed investigative reporter at The Guardian.

A BBC producer added ironically, “With his PayPal account and Visa card cut off, it’s hard to imagine how WikiLeaks will be able to pay the astronomical PR retainers but I guess all’s fair in love and war.”

So, let’s follow along with Julian Assange as he enters the posh 44th floor offices of Winken, Blinken & Nodd in Canary Wharf in London’s financial district. It’s his first strategy meeting with his new PR counsel.

“God, they’ve got more wood paneling in here than the Amazon rainforest,” Assange thought to himself as he stepped off the elevator into the very ritzy reception area. “And that receptionist looks like a cross between The Sun tabloid Page Three Girl centerfold and a piranha.”

The receptionist gave him a predatory smile, picked up the phone and said, “Priscilla, that Julian fellow’s here. He’s kinda cute and all. Shall I bring him into the boardroom? Tea too luv?”

“Mr Winken, Mr Blinken, Mr Nodd and Ms Parsley will see you now,” she said with a voice like a Southampton sailor, leading him to the boardroom with a swing of her hips after carefully putting away her nail file and rouge.

View of Canary Wharf

The boardroom offered a spectacular view of the Thames River, the Tower of London and Big Ben and the day was certainly a lot brighter than his last several weeks in the gaol lockup had been.

“Welcome Julian,” said the statuesque PR agency Vice President Priscilla Parsley. “So wonderful of you to engage us. Let me introduce my partners, Mr Walter Winken, Mr Barry Blinken and Mr Nathaniel Nodd. Gentlemen, please be seated.”

The Piranha finished pouring tea and closed the boardroom door quietly with a final wink at Assange before returning to her receptionist bunker.

“You come highly recommended” Assange said. “My Aussie rules rugby and media drinking mates said there’s nobody better at getting you out of a spot of trouble than the blokes at WBN, present company included.”

He had also been warned not to underestimate the vivacious Ms Parsley who had been described as a ‘pit bull’ publicist and capable crisis manager.

“You know the difference between a pit bull and a publicist?” his Guardian reporter friend had asked. “Nothing!” he’d responded, laughing into his third pint of bitters. A warm pint of British ale really brings out the best in the media.

Demi Moore

Parsley handed around the PR strategy session Agenda with the efficiency of a Lieutenant Colonel yet also with the surprising and distracting grace of a Demi Moore lookalike. “My mates were right,” Assange concluded as he glanced at Parsley and studied the agenda.

Agenda
Objectives
Situation (SWOT) Analysis
Potential PR Strategies
Stakeholders
Key Messages
PR Tactics
Measures of Success
Budget

“As we discussed on the phone Julian, we’ve got three objectives,” asserted Parsley. “The first is classic crisis management strategy. We need to get all of the remaining bad news out so that we can then focus people’s attention on the really good news – the next set of leaks about the uncaring US banking system.”

“The second objective,” Winken intoned “is to convince people of the importance of freedom of information and the crucial role of WikiLeaks and whistleblowers in a democracy.”

“The third objective is to restore your personal integrity as a concerned individual, a respected journalist and a champion of women’s rights,” stated Blinken.

Nodd nodded coolly in agreement, his dark, expressionless eyes looking like he could have been working for Scotland Yard or MI5.

“We don’t ‘do’ crisis management like those wusses in the Americas,” barked Winken. “They always tell you to stand up all teary eyed, emotional and withering while you apologize for everything from a speeding ticket, drinking Jack Daniels and womanizing to swearing in public and kicking the dog. It’s simply not the British way. We prefer to kick you right in the bollocks and get on with our lives.”

“Right then. Julian. Give us a situation analysis if you will,” Parsley said steering the conversation back to the agenda.

“Well, I feel like I’m being screwed over,” Assange complained bitterly, his voice choking with emotion.

“Now that I’m out on bail, I’m being followed everywhere by a bunch of blokes who look like they bought their trench coats, sunglasses and white socks at Abercrombie & Fitch or LL Bean. Crikey, I can’t have a pint with my mates from the tabloids, put some shrimp on the barbie or even go walkabout without somebody strange looking on.”

“Let’s get back to your SWOT analysis,” chided Parsley gently.

“Alrighty,” said Assange. “Strengths? We are doing democracy a tremendous service through WikiLeaks. We are simply doing the right thing, protecting people from the abuses of government, tyrannical global corporations and those who want to increase taxes and global warming.”

“Weaknesses?” he continued. “I’m being attacked by these two former Swedish girlfriends of mine. Lovely couple of girls they were by the way. It’s a conspiracy to undermine my credibility, orchestrated by foreign governments.”

“The opportunity is to show how important our work is when we release our next 250,000 documents about the US banking system,” Assange asserted. “The threat is that people will not believe us or be bored entirely to tears reading through the many pages of material.”

“Incisive analysis Julian,” Parsley said to nods round the boardroom table. “Mr Winken, please share with us your first recommended PR strategy.”

Hugh Grant

“It’s something I call the ‘Winken’ strategy,” Winken stated with conviction. “We’ve used it successfully with millionaire playboys, politicians who get in trouble and any number of famous celebrities. Basically, we deflect every criticism and demonstrate how our opponents are attacking us personally by ‘winking and smiling our way’ through the controversy. It’s worked very well for Hugh Grant, Tiger Woods and Mel Gibson.”

Blinken barged into the conversation, “Our next strategy is what we call the ‘blinking’ strategy. That’s where you stand up in front of the cameras, blinking your eyes innocently and declaring that you’re simply a victim. You state that you have no knowledge of how documents came into your hands nor do you actually know who the whistleblowers are.”

“And our third strategy Mr Nodd?” asked Parsley.

“It’s called the Nodd or gravitas strategy,” said Nodd with the smile of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. “When announcing your new allegations and whistleblowing information on the banking system, you will be saying very little but simply nodding gravely, shaking your head quietly side to side, and leaving the not-so-subtle impression that if you could only tell the world everything you know, they wouldn’t believe you! Gravitas is simply irresistible to the media.”

“I like those strategies very much Priscilla,” Assange said. “I think they will serve us most adequately.”

“Right then,” she replied. “Let me direct you to the list of stakeholders that we must keep in mind during our crisis communications and PR programme.”

Assange read through the list:

Stakeholders:
Existing & potential whistleblowers
Foreign governments, heads of state & CEOs
Influential media around the globe
Legions of reporters, citizen journalists, bloggers, Twitterers, Facebookers & other social media mavens
Past, current & potential donors & supporters (critical)
Computer hackers & technology experts
Democratic rights organizations
Women’s rights activists
UK Public House & Pub Owners Association
The Public

“That’s a very extensive and solid list of stakeholders,” continued Assange. “But I don’t think we’ll have much success with women’s groups.”

“Don’t be too sure, my dear Julian,” said Parsley. “One of the ways we will have success with women’s groups is through our social media strategy. We’ll work intimately with mommy bloggers and play up your boyish good looks and Hugh Grant-like smile.”

“I knew I liked you,” Assange murmured quietly to himself.

“She’s really quite brilliant isn’t she?” said Winken to his partners and new client. “All that social media touchy-feely stuff with twittering and pretending to listen to everybody’s intimate laundry. Well, it’s beyond me but it seems to work wonders with the younger crowd.”

Blinken added, “Maybe I can twist a few arms and get Hugh Grant, Fergie and Elton John to join us in a photo op for The Daily Star? Those type of influencers really count in a crisis.”

“Gentlemen, please,” Parsley interrupted. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with PR tactics before we finish with our stakeholders and key messages.”

Parsley placed the next document – Key Messages on the table. “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a few suggested key messages to help you handle media calls, British parliamentary and US congressional appearances and calls from your mother,” she said with a sly smile.

Assange, with his steel trap, journalist’s mind and photographic memory read quickly:

Key Messages

  1. WikiLeaks is doing important journalism work that is fundamental to any democracy.
  2. We’ve set high journalistic and personal standards and have chosen to work with the most honest, influential and respected media around the world.
  3. The personal attacks on me, my character and my personal conduct are simply a smear campaign to try and discredit our work.
  4. You will see in the new documents on the shenanigans of the banking system, there is plenty of blame to share regarding the failures of financial institutions to protect individual rights.

“We recommend you stay true to these four key messages in all of your statements, interviews, news conferences and media briefings,” Parsley advised.  “Don’t refer to the allegations in Sweden. Just call them ‘the problem.’ That’s the best media training advice I can give you.”

“In terms of public relations tactics, we’ve got a number of proven approaches on the front burner,” she added. She then outlined several including:

    • Weekly online media conference to deliver messages from him and WikiLeaks
    • Six-figure book publishing deal with Penguin Books
    • TV appearance via satellite linkup on Oprah

Simon Cowell

  • Aggressive quick response strategy to unfavorable media coverage
  • New blog called WikiLeaks Sez
  • Fresh new Facebook page called Just Julian
  • New Twitter account called @WikiLeaky
  • Image makeover with couturier to the stars Mr John
  • Appearance as a guest judge with Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent.

“And let’s not forget that possible photo op with The Star,” Blinken reminded the group.

“Well, Miss Parsley, time is flying and I need to prepare for my meeting with Lord Smotherton very shortly,” Winken said. “I believe there are some incriminating photos of him that need to be managed. Hopefully you don’t have any of those out there do you Mr Assange?”

“None that I know of sir,” Assange replied hesitantly. “Thank you very much for your firm’s time and excellent strategy.”

“That won’t be a problem as long as you keep your account current and Ms Parsley will see to that very competently,” Nodd added as the three PR agency partners brusquely departed the boardroom.

The Bull & Spectacles Free House for a pint

“Julian, why don’t we finish the discussion of PR strategy, measures of success and budget over a pint at The Bull & Spectacles Free House just down the street?” Parsley suggested with a smile.

“Brilliant,” he replied. “I could really use a pint. We’ll just put it on my account Priscilla, if I may call you by your first name?”

“My PR life just got really quite interesting,” Parsley thought to herself as they rose to leave the boardroom.

“She’s really very attractive,” Assange said to himself quietly. “Life is looking up. Now if I can only get a new Barclay’s Visa card and fresh line of credit…”

If you enjoy the funny side of PR, you may also enjoy New PR Smartphone App Will Transform PR,  52 Holidays PR Will Want to Celebrate, 15 PR Jokes to Get You Started or waste some time at Funny, Now That You Mention It… in the PR Library.

Photo Credits: Canary Wharf  by Tarotastic, Canary Wharf aerial by Luigi Rosa, Demi Moore by Spree PiX – Berlin, Hugh Grant by NYCArthur via Flickr

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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