Q&A: what's it like handling PR for Julian Assange?
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange became a polarising figure when he broke through on the global stage thanks to his organisations' storing and publishing of secret documents. In recent years he has sought political refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, avoiding an arrest warrant, which he denies and claims to be part of a political conspiracy as a result of his work with Wikileaks.
Representing Assange is PR man Richard Hillgrove who spoke to The Drum about what the role has been like, having also worked with other politically charged clients such as legendary fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood and activist, author and actress Rose McGowan over the years.
How did you come to work for Assange?
It came through Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, his longest serving lawyer (she has represented him for eight years), who set it up.
What was your first meeting like and what were your impressions of him?
He was taller than I thought he would be, he’s 6ft 2 inches. He has a wicked sense of humor and relishes leftfield and detailed facts about anything and everything. He picks up on information you would least expect. His knowledge is vast!
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What is your brief in working for him?
To ensure he has a powerful voice in world media and to ensure the truth is told.
How long have you worked with him?
Officially for five months.
You would have met in the embassy – what were the conditions like after all this time?
It’s all via the lawyers at the moment. The conditions are the same as those shared by all Embassy staff. The problem is he doesn’t get any proper outside light, he doesn’t even have access to the balcony as a routine thing. This situation urgently needs to be addressed.
He’s being accused of some very serious offences – are you involved in combating those allegations or is that beyond your remit?
Ironically, he’s never actually been charged with anything. The United Nations says he is being arbitrarily detained, the British government challenged that. The United Nations overruled the British government and stated the same thing again – a second time – that he is being arbitrarily detained. That means that the British government is breaking the law.
Do you have any involvement in Wikileaks or is the brief entirely dedicated to Assange?
The brief has been specifically to represent his personal PR. Wikileaks has now appointed Kristinn Hrafnsson, its former international comms guy, as editor-in-chief and this is a separate animal.
What does he still aspire to achieve beyond presumably securing his own liberty and attempting to clear his name?
His goals are the same goals he’s always had. To create a transparent world with equal access to information for everyone. He’s stated many times he will ‘not forget’ the injustice that has been done to him. He greatly regrets not being with his family for so much time and clearly he has great concerns about his liberty if he is ever to be extradited to the US. This whole standoff is about the UK not providing a simple assurance that they will not extradite him to the US if he walks out of the Ecuadorian Embassy and faces the penalty for jumping bail.
How do you view his treatment by journalists and the media?
Journalists are being pummeled with disinformation from vested interests smearing his name. This is now par for the course. There is so much disinformation and rubbish out there, he’s becoming more myth than man.
What have you learned as a result of working with Assange?
I’ve learned that to stick to your guns is the hardest thing sometimes. Most of life is about compromise and concessions. Assange is one of the only people I know absolutely hellbent on achieving his goals, without compromise. It’s something to be admired.
What have you achieved by working for him?
I think my PR skills have greatly amplified the message that gets out there from the Julian Assange, Wikileaks or associated social media accounts. A good press release that communicates the facts can greatly amplify a message, even in today’s dotcom age. There really are two worlds in the media landscape. There’s the social universe and then there’s still the vast traditional media landscape; eg The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, with their online equivalents. I’ve been handling ‘the other half’ – ensuring that’s balanced up with the social media.
In a similar manner as being in law, do you ever consider the allegations or issues a client faces when working with them or is the job to tackle those head on no matter what?
I think you assess the situation at the beginning before accepting the assignment. To perform the role of a public relations professional, like a lawyer, you don’t have to 100% agree with every small aspect of a client’s day-to-day behavior. But overall, I think you should be on the same page. It greatly flavors your modus operandi if you adhere to the same principles. For me personally, greater transparency in government and corporate sector is critical. That is being seriously challenged. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are doing humanity a great favor.
How are you trying to rework the perception of Assange? He has gone from internet 'hero' to seeming almost a martyr. How do you intend to rebuild perception?
Ironically, by making Julian Assange's personal PR less personal. The cult of personality aspect around Julian Assange has caused a lot of his problems. It's, unfortunately, got very personal. It's almost as if people like former CIA director and now Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have got it in for Julian Assange on a personal level. Him saying "Julian Assange has no first amendment rights" is ridiculous. Even though he's broken no laws and simply published the truth, in exactly the same way the New York Times or Guardian do, they are treating him personally like some sort of criminal.
The move take take him out of the editor role of WIkileaks is a good start to de-personalizing everything.
There are hundreds of people worldwide that work alongside him. More needs to be made of that.
Also, ensuring that more supportive voices come forward that reinforce the United Nations ruling that he has been arbitrarily detained, that there are serious concerns about his health. Not just the usual voices like Vivienne Westwood and Pamela Anderson, but other people coming forward. Everyone's very frightened to put their head above the parapet. But that's what needs to happen.