IMF, Desiring an Image Makeover, Plans to Hire a Public-Relations Firm
by Michael Phillips of the Wall Street JournalThe global economic crisis has thrust the International Monetary Fund onto center stage, and the reviews have been brutal. So like any beleaguered actor, the multilateral lender is hiring a new publicist.
Besieged by conservatives in Congress and rioters in Jakarta, the IMF has decided to hire a big-name public-relations firm to figure out why the secretive agency is most unloved just when its activities are most visible.
"In some corners of the press, we're not exactly winning a lot of plaudits," admits Graham Newman, an IMF spokesman.
The IMF has asked major Washington PR firms for proposals and is now choosing one of them to help figure out how the public world-wide has viewed the agency over the past year. The winning firm also will help develop a strategy for clearing up what IMF managers see as public misperceptions about their record. But that mission raises an age-old PR question: Is the IMF's problem its image, or its performance?
"I suppose they feel that if they put a better face on their operations, they can avoid having to change them," says Rep. Jim Saxton (R., N.J.), a vocal IMF critic.
Among the bidders are Hill & Knowlton Worldwide Co., Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, and Porter Novelli, all of which decline to discuss their advice.
The IMF has made openness its mantra in developing nations. If governments hide economic data, then investors can't properly assess risks, the argument goes.
Transparency, however, doesn't come naturally to the IMF itself. IMF officials told the PR firms not to discuss the project with outsiders, says Chuck Greener, Porter Novelli's Washington general manager. In fact, the IMF refuses even to release publicly the document soliciting bids from the firms, saying that could taint the contracting process. By contrast, the IMF's sister institution, the World Bank, posts its solicitations on a Web site; just recently it posted a request for bids on office carpet tiles.
But against its will, the IMF's cloistered existence ended in July 1997, when the collapse of Thailand's currency set off the global financial crisis. Since then, the IMF has lent billions of dollars in bailouts for Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Russia and -- any day now -- Brazil. And suddenly the IMF is taking potshots from all sides.
"In the past, the IMF has been rather quiet and not responded to comments made by outside people," says IMF Deputy Managing Director Shigemitsu Sugisaki. "Of course, what's most important is to do the right job. But ... we should also try to make ourselves understood better.
That's why we're soliciting professional advice about what we can do better and more in the field of public relations."
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
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