Poland's evolving politics, economy short on a key Western element: PR


WARSAW, Poland -- Poland is crying out for PR.

But it doesn't yet know it.

There's nothing here like the hand-delivered handout, the glossy brochure, the well-oiled happening or the public relations buildup.

Take last week's call from the U.S. Labor Department's Molly Walsh.

She offered a reporter half an hour with Shelly McCaffrey. She was trying, she said. She was even very hopeful.

Wow! Half an hour with Shelly McCaffrey! Like half an hour with the Holy Grail. The reportorial adrenalin flowed.

But, wait! Who was Shelly McCaffrey?

As it happens, she was a Labor Department official heading the U.S. delegation to a housing conference here. But that was immaterial.

What's pertinent was the buildup, a Western rite foreign to Poland. There is no equivalent in the Polish language to the English term "public relations."

"Last December, I tried to register my new public relations firm," said former journalist Piotr Czarnowski, chairman of First Public Relations. "And I was refused. They told me there was no such thing."

Countrywide, 40 firms claim to handle public relations, Mr. Czarnowski said, but what they are really doing is "primitive advertising." Among bona fide public relations firms, he added, there are just four: ITI; Elgaz, in Gdansk; Alcat, run by former ABC producer Alma Kadragic; and his.

"Polish firms don't understand PR and don't see the need for it," Mr. Czarnowski said. "It's connected with market shortages. But that will change when there's a market glut and competition."

The non-existence of political PR contributed to the downfall of the last government, led by Solidarity veteran Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

"The Mazowiecki period was characterized by massive misunderstanding of PR," said Alcat's Ms. Kadragic.

The ultimate gaffe was a luxurious election-night party at which chamber orchestras serenaded government luminaries eating their way through piles of delicacies while a populace no longer able to afford other entertainment watched on national television.

The Polish idea of political PR was and is a press conference at which a high official drones on about statistics or agricultural output.

Sophisticates lay on "koktajls" to follow. But usually they lead the press to the troughs and then split, allowing the Fourth Estate to reach a consensus on the news-worthlessness of the affair.

The present government is conscious of the need for professional PR advice, said Jacek Kozlowski, the new director of the Government Press Office. "We even called for tenders from PR firms," he said, but added somewhat uncomfortably that no decision had been made.

Only foreign PR firms answered the call.

A British PR agency offered to advise President Lech Walesa during his presidential campaign. But Mr. Walesa turned them down, a spokesman said.

"He felt it wasn't necessary," said Miroslaw Kowalewski of the presidential press office. "In America they package the president, build his image, but it's different in Poland."

Admittedly, Mr. Walesa is an instinctive showman and perhaps his own best public relations man. But there are suggestions that he needs professional advice to "sell" Poland.

"Walesa has to sell the concept of the new Poland to the Poles," said management consultant Jan Maciejewicz.

"And to the West," added Mr. Czarnowski.

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