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Review of “All the Worst Humans” by Phil Elwood – Confessions of a Cleanup Man

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma in 2010.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma in 2010. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“Operators like me oil the machines that prop up authoritarian power all over the world,” writes Washington PR man Phil Elwood in his memoir,
All the Worst Humans. “I help those machines function by laundering the sins of dictators through the press.” While he may be overselling himself a bit, Elwood’s romp through a career spent manipulating the media on behalf of some of the world’s most infamous figures lends credibility to his claims.

The idea that the excessively wealthy pay large sums to PR companies to shift narratives in their favor isn’t shocking. What is surprising is the extent to which these companies are willing to go and whom they are willing to represent. No task is too enormous or filthy for some. In 2018, Washington firm Qorvis accepted $18.8 million from Saudi Arabia for “PR cleanup fees” following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Leading up to the Sochi Olympics, New York agency Ketchum took on Vladimir Putin as a major client, netting $40 million from the Kremlin and Gazprom.

Elwood details his work with Brown Lloyd James (BLJ), a boutique consultancy founded by Peter Brown, known for managing the Beatles. It was at BLJ where Elwood performed many of his darkest deeds. Brown, who believes “anything is possible with the right amount of money,” counts some of the globe’s most famous names in his Rolodex, including Donald Trump and Yoko Ono. He isn’t shy about leveraging his connections to aid what Elwood calls a roster of “foreign baddies.”

One of Elwood’s early tasks at BLJ involved chaperoning Mutassim Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan dictator, through a debauched Las Vegas spree. Elwood’s role included sourcing vintage champagne and private jets while fearing for his life. Other notorious BLJ clients included Gabon’s leader Ali Bongo and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It was Brown who organized a Vogue interview with Bashar’s wife Asma, using his connection with editor Anna Wintour. The resultant article, “A Rose in the Desert,” lavishly praised Asma and depicted the Assad family as “wildly democratic,” much to BLJ’s delight.

While whitewashing brutal regimes isn’t illegal, some of BLJ’s tactics, according to Elwood, pushed ethical boundaries. For instance, when hired by Qatar to undermine the US bid to host the 2022 World Cup, Elwood orchestrated a campaign using deceptive methods. They created a faux grassroots organization called the Healthy Kids Coalition, lobbying against the US bid by connecting it to childhood obesity concerns, a cause associated with Michelle Obama.

To lend credibility to the campaign, Elwood had a congressman propose a supportive resolution, then leaked the story to a cooperative journalist. By presenting this fabricated controversy at a crucial Fifa meeting, Qatar managed to secure the World Cup hosting rights, a decision regarded as one of the most corrupt in Fifa history. Despite the controversies, the tournament was a significant win for Qatar, highlighting Elwood’s assertion that “sportwashing works.”

Elwood expresses deep disdain for his own profession, describing the PR industry as a “parasite” living off the media. According to him, the industry thrives on crises, turning them into lucrative opportunities. He criticizes the overwhelming dominance of PR professionals over journalists in the US, suggesting that the imbalance has allowed media manipulators to twist the truth more effectively than ever.

In All the Worst Humans, Elwood’s narrative is part confession, part indictment. He recounts how he manipulated narratives and occasionally invented them to solve problems for his clients. He acknowledges the destruction his work has wrought, stating that today’s dangerous times are partly the result of his industry’s actions.

While Elwood comes off as an egotistical braggart seeking redemption, his story offers a compelling insider’s view into the world of PR and its often troubling impact on global events. By the end of the book, one might find him a bit more complex—and perhaps even likable.

• All the Worst Humans by Phil Elwood is published by Atlantic (£20).

Source: The Guardian