Mexican President Peña Nieto Enlists US-based PR Firm

APCO’s Contract Calls for Conducting Opinion Research on “Americans’ Perceptions of Mexico”

The administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is once again employing the services of a U.S.-based public relations firm with a controversial history.

Documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act show that Washington, D.C.-based APCO Worldwide Inc. has been retained by the “Office of the President of the Republic of Mexico (through NODO Research)” to provide “opinion research services in the United States for the foreign principal [Peña Nieto] for a fee of approximately $46,850 - $50,150 plus reimbursement for expenses.”

NODO Research (formally known as NODO Investigación + Estrategia) is a market research firm based in Mexico City. It has contracted with APCO Insight, a division of APCO Worldwide, to assist it with consulting services the firm is providing to the Peña Nieto administration.

Following his election in July 2012 until the end of that year, Peña Nieto employed the services of another Washington, D.C.-based communications and marketing firm, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, to help him spread positive propaganda during the transition period prior to his official swearing-in as the president of Mexico on Dec. 1 of 2012.

Both CLSA and APCO Worldwide have long histories of manipulating reality for the powerful.

CLSA is the same US image-building firm that was retained in the fall of 2009 by the Honduran regime led by “de facto” President Roberto Micheletti in the wake of its coup d'état in that Central American nation. CLSA’s Foreign Agents Registration Act filing with the Department of Justice described its mission in Honduras as promoting Honduran President and Usurper Roberto Micheletti’s dictatorship as a democracy “through the use of media outreach, policy maker contacts and events, and public dissemination of information….”

CLSA’s working relationship with the Peña Nieto administration ended formally on Dec. 30, 2012, FARA records show. APCO’s contract with NODO was finalized in early October of this year, according to FARA filings.

Adam Williams, media relations manager for APCO Worldwide, told Narco News that “APCO Insight, the opinion research group at APCO Worldwide, is working with NODO Investigación + Estrategia to consult on an opinion research study regarding Americans’ perceptions of Mexico.”

Among the APCO employees who will be working with NODO is Bill Dalbec, senior director of APCO Insight.

Dalbec states the following in the FARA filings:

I will provide opinion research services to NODO Research for the foreign principal [the Peña Nieto administration]. Some of the work may, on occasion, include advising NODO Research in connection with NODO Research's services for [the Peña Nieto administration].

… Some of my work may include contacting members of the U.S. general public on behalf of NODO Research for the [Peña Nieto administration].

The “Project Statement” included in APCO’s FARA filings indicates that the firm’s work with NODO will include the following:

• Participate in an initial daylong meeting in Mexico City to receive a briefing on Client’s [NODO’s] work, develop a work plan for the next phase of research in the United States, and attend a briefing with NODO’s client [the Peña Nieto administration] on the work plan.

• Provide advice on methodology, sampling, question development, including reviewing all research instruments.

• Conduct 24 focus groups in four locations and provide feedback to the sessions.

• Review the final analysis and provide edits and recommendations based on the findings; travel to Mexico City to participate in the client briefing.

It’s not clear why Peña Nieto is so keen to get a bead on what US citizens think of him and Mexico in general. APCO’s Williams responded with silence when asked why the Mexican government is interested in conducting opinion research on the US public.

Big Stakes

Mexican President Peña Nieto is currently spearheading a sweeping economic reform push in Mexico that seeks to reign in the teacher’s union, elevate the banking sector, expand competition in the telecom sector and to partially privatize the nation’s energy sector — now controlled by the state-owned oil-and-gas giant Pemex. To assure his reforms take root, particularly with respect to energy-sector privatization efforts, it seems clear Peña Nieto will need to attract plenty of investment capital and other assistance from US corporations and investors. 

At the same time, Peña Nieto is trying to manage propaganda for a drug war that has actually worsened under his reign. Homicide figures released recently by Harary Security Consulting International, one of the top corporate security and intelligence-gathering firms in Mexico, show that murders linked to organized-crime activity have jumped dramatically during Peña Nieto’s first year as president, compared with the final year of his predecessor’s term. [See chart.]

More than 1000 people were killed as a result of organized crime during October,” states Harary’s Mexico security summary report for October. “This represents a 117% increase over September, but exactly matches the average of all months from January through September. The vast majority of these victims were either gunned down individually or in small groups, or they were kidnapped, tortured, and their bodies deposited.” [Emphasis added.]

Although Harary’s homicide figures might be deemed conservative (tracking crime related to organized crime is not a perfect science), they are what private companies operating in Mexico (Harary’s clients) rely on in making security decisions.

Harary’s figures also provide an apples-to-apples comparison of homicide rates between administrations. The firm’s numbers show that during 2012, the last year of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s administration, the monthly murder rate was much lower than during the first year of Peña Nieto’s term. Under Calderón in 2012, organized-crime-related homicides generally ranged between 700 and 900 per month, and only exceeded 1,000 once, in March of that year.

If US opinion turns against Peña Nieto and his economic reforms or his handling of the drug war, or both, that could be bad for business interests in Mexico.

But APCO has a long track record of working with powerful groups to advance their agendas by successfully manipulating US opinion — experience that could prove useful in cultivating the right perceptions with respect to both Peña Nieto’s economic reform agenda and the drug war in Mexico.

In fact, APCO has proven to be adept at creating “astroturf” organizations (false grassroots groups) that create the appearance of a groundswell of public opinion on a given issue, but in reality are little more than shell entities skillfully organized and promoted to advance the interests of hidden players — typically powerful corporate clients.

Astroturfing America

APCO traces its roots back to the mid-1980s, when it was set up as a subsidiary of the law firm of Arnold & Porter, which represented tobacco giant Philip Morris. In the 1990s, Philip Morris enlisted APCO (then known as APCO & Associates) to help launch “astroturf” groups called “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse” across the US in order to build political pressure for limiting jury awards in product liability lawsuits.

During that same time period, APCO helped its corporate backers to set up a group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which, among other efforts, initiated a campaign to cast doubt on global warming.

More recently, during the run-up to vote on Obamacare, APCO was allegedly enlisted by the insurance industry to help undermine public support for any type of reform that involved creating a new government-sponsored health-insurance option.

Wendell Potter, a former insurance industry executive turned whistleblower, contends in a May 2011 story he penned for the Center for Public Integrity that APCO, working on behalf of its corporate clients, set up a group called Health Care America whose mission included orchestrating a campaign to persuade “Americans that any reform bill expanding Medicare or including a 'public option' would represent a government takeover.”

US documentary filmmaker Michael Moore alleges the same group (Health Care America) also zeroed in on him and his film “Sicko,” which lambasted the US health care system.

Moore wrote the following in a November 2010 opinion piece appearing on his website:

When someone talks about pushing you off a cliff, it's just human nature to be curious about them. Who are these people, you wonder, and why would they want to do such a thing?

That's what I was thinking when corporate whistleblower Wendell Potter revealed that, when "Sicko" was being released in 2007, the health insurance industry's PR firm, APCO Worldwide, discussed their Plan B: "Pushing Michael Moore off a cliff."

… As Wendell Potter explains, APCO ran their standard playbook, setting up something called "Health Care America." Health Care America, according to Potter, "was received by mainstream reporters, including the New York Times, as a legitimate organization when it was nothing but a front group set up by APCO Worldwide. It was not anything approaching what it was reporting to be: a 'grassroots organization.' It was a sham group."

Whether the services being provided by APCO to the Peña Nieto administration via the Mexican intermediary NODO Investigación + Estrategia will ultimately result in the creation of similar astroturf campaigns to advance the Mexican president’s agenda in Mexico or the US is an unknown at this point. That is not addressed in APCO’s FARA filing.

For now, all we know is what is stated in APCO’s FARA filing:

Description of Project: Provide research and consulting services for the Client’s [NODO Investigación + Estrategia’s] work for the President of Mexico.

Stay tuned….

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