The Orbán government’s PR effort in the United States

The Orbán government is slowly becoming aware that its reputation in the western regions of Europe and in North America has been shattered thanks to the erratic behavior of the prime minister and the “unorthodox” economic policies of György Matolcsy. The combined result is mistrust of the Hungarian government by politicians and businessmen alike.

The government naturally doesn’t like to broadcast how much money it spends on touting the government’s alleged achievements. Hungarian papers usually get their information from the foreign press. And because PR firms promote themselves as well as their clients, they often brag about bigger and more important business deals.

This is how Politico Influence found out that Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications signed up Hungary. According to the write-up, “Hungary is increasing its Washington footprint, looking to make sure that the U.S. continues to see the importance of Eastern Europe.” Well, that is not the real reason, let’s face it. Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for international communication, in a somewhat awkward English sentence told Politico Influence that “the messages the Hungarian government is sending out about its system are being interpreted in a way that are in need of a professional team to accurately communicate them.”

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Public Relations Network (flckr/sympra)

What will the five-member team at Rasky Baerlein do for its monthly $45,000 fee to help the Orbán government’s image? The task will include “everything from engaging in radio and TV broadcasts to website and social media strategy, as well as press releases, pamphlets, letters and lectures.” The team will be headed by Shawn Sullivan, senior vice president, who seems to have extensive contacts with the State Department. According to Sullivan the Hungarians “just want to make sure their voices are heard among everyone else who competes for attention in Washington.” The team also includes David Tamasi, who manages Rasky Baerlein’s Washington office. Judging from his name, Tamasi may have Hungarian connections, which could have had something to with Hungary’s choice of a firm headquartered in Boston. Tamasi received his B.A. from Gettysburg College and an M.A. in journalism from Boston University.

Rasky Baerlein began its public relations activities in the Boston area. For example, they represent the Red Sox, and the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities recently announced that it had retained the firm as public affairs and strategic advisors. But what does the firm really do? It is quite clear that Rasky Baerlein is supposed to lobby for the Massachusetts Advocates. As their executive director said, “every significant industry in Massachusetts retains professional lobbyists.” But even the Washington office often deals with less illustrious clients than the Hungarian government. A few months ago the National Flea Market Association hired Rasky Baerlein “to organize its lobbying and outreach initiatives.” David Tamasi was delighted to have the flea marketers because his firm is “a full-service public affairs firm, we do lobbying, and we do PR. This is something that is right in our bailiwick.”

Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications was founded in 1997. According to their own promo the firm has received several awards–the “Small PR Agency of the Year 2010” and the “Public Affairs Agency of the Year 2010” awarded by The Holmes Report, a specialized paper for people working in public relations.

The firm was established by Joseph T. Baerlein and Larry Rasky. From what I could find out about these two men’s political affiliations, both seem to have ties to politicians belonging to the Democratic Party. Baerlein worked for Lt. Gov. Evelyn F. Murphy of Massachusetts and Rasky for Edward John Markey, U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District. Rasky is also “a longtime board member of the Anti-Defamation League and in this capacity he was honored for the role in making a new bridge named after Leonard P. Zakim, former director of the League’s New England office.” I wonder how much Larry Rasky knows about the growing anti-Semitism in Hungary that by now involves even Viktor Orbán’s own party. For example, the scandal in Eger over an actor who was barred by local Fidesz politicians from appearing on a Villon program because he was “a filthy Jew with liberal sympathies.”

How much will Shawn Sullivan, David Tamasi, and their team be able to achieve in Washington on behalf of Orbán’s Hungary? I have the feeling, not much. I think we’ve got to the point where communication is not enough. What Washington is expecting from Viktor Orbán is a total turnabout, to see his government behave the way politicians in a democratic country are supposed to behave. They would like to see a restored independent judiciary, a media law that would not put Hungary into the category of “semi-free” countries. Talk, empty talk at that, will not move too many people in Washington. They would like to see a change of policy. Otherwise the monthly $45,000 is money down the drain.

Judit Csernyánszky, who just returned from the United States, wrote an opinion piece in today’s Népszava in which she describes the general atmosphere she encountered while accompanying some MSZP politicians to Washington and New York. She came to the conclusion that “there is not one political think tank today in Washington where Viktor Orbán would be welcome. … By now no one is interested in his explanations and he couldn’t convince anyone of his truth.”  Rasky Baerlein will have a very difficult time changing this perception. They would need Viktor Orbán’s cooperation, which is unlikely.