Phil Elwood on Doing PR for All the Worst Humans


In the wake of the recent Trump-Biden debate, public relations operative Phil Elwood joins co-host V.V. Ganeshananthan and guest co-host Matt Gallagher to talk about his career spinning stories in favor of infamous international leaders. Elwood, whose clients previously included figures like Libya’s Gaddafi family and Syria’s al-Assads, recalls his strangest assignments, his biggest regret—helping Qatar to secure soccer’s World Cup—and his proudest accomplishments, including spotlighting the mental health treatment that has helped him. He reflects on how his career shifted when he was swept up in then-FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and also explains tactics such as “detonating the bomb in a safe location,” which means giving an unavoidable, damaging story to a second-tier publication so that the “hit isn’t so bad.” Elwood reads from his new book, All the Worst Humans: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians.

Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.

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From the episode:

Matt Gallagher: You’ve done public relations for people like Gaddafi, the now dead dictator of Libya, and the Assads, the political dynasty in Syria, whose son and still current president of Syria, almost certainly infamously gassed his own people about a decade back in the throes of the Syrian civil war. But as a young college dropout, you first worked on the Hill on the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. How did you go from that job to becoming one of the most powerful public relations men in Washington, D.C.?

Phil Elwood: I’m probably not one of the most powerful. I think that the most powerful PR guy in Washington, D.C., probably has a hell of a lot more money than I do. But at the very top of the program, you gave the LinkedIn version of my bio, and I thought it was great. But as with many things in life, and many stories and communications tactics, you can tell two stories that are both very true, in very, very different ways. 

So another way to tell that very same bio, is that at the age of 20, due to a drug problem, I had to drop out of college in Pennsylvania. I moved to D.C. to dry out, which is not the best town to do that in, and then ended up working for a very distinguished senator who helped get me in as a transfer student at The George Washington University (GW). I was then thrown out of GW for drunkenly crashing through a window at Gelman Library. That same senator’s office helped me get a job with a different senator, as he was retiring, and they helped get me into Georgetown and the London School of Economics. So that’s a very different way to tell the same path; two stories, very different ways. 

And after graduate school, I just applied anywhere that would have me and ended up getting hired by a public relations firm that I don’t think any longer exists, but it was just two people in the basement of a lobbying firm, and worked on a couple of stories there, moved on to a larger firm, and then moved on to kind of an exotic firm that specialized in representing dictators. And I didn’t know until my first day in the office who our clients were; they didn’t really advertise that. So it was all kind of luck.

MG: Okay, okay. Life takes us all to unplanned places, I suppose. Though, life took you to encountering Saif Gaddafi when you were doing your master’s at the London School of Economics. So even before you accepted that first PR job, right? 

PE: Indeed. He would wander around campus sometimes, and there was some scandal that came out around the Arab Spring that he actually paid bribes to get his Ph.D. 

MG: Ah, so he and his father, the aforementioned dictator, later hired the firm you worked for, and you have an astonishing passage in your book about editing an op-ed that Gaddafi, the father, wrote. I can only imagine what the Track Changes on that looked like. Could you talk a little bit about, not just that op-ed, but your work in general for the Gaddafi family?

PE: Sure. So the op-ed was just this rambling, pro-Russia, anti-NATO expansion screed, so it’s rather timely for today, actually. But I didn’t do much editing with that.  Most of what I did was place the op-ed and convince The Washington Times to run it. The hardest part about that was convincing the editor that I actually worked for Gaddafi. I think she said at one point, “Certainly no one actually works for him,” and I was like, yeah, that’s a real thing. 

I could talk about the idiosyncrasies of the Gaddafi family for the next two hours of this program—but the best way to describe it, I think, is the trip that I had to take to Las Vegas with Mutassim Gaddafi. This one was a little nuts because I had never been to Las Vegas before. And so I was functionally useless as a tour guide. Second thing is I didn’t know why I was going until they had closed the aircraft door on the airplane, and I was there waiting for instructions on why I was going. They sent me an email that was this four-page list of demands from Mutassim Gaddafi, the 35-year-old son of Muammar, who was the national security adviser of the country, and wanted to party in Vegas for the weekend before his father spoke at the United Nations General Assembly. So he wanted to buy some Harleys, he wanted to buy an Escalade, he wanted to see Cher perform, and Cirque du Soleil, and wanted to buy some jean shorts. And if you guys want to explore the psychology of why the jean shorts—I don’t know. It was really strange. But you have to understand the mentality of this—I will call him a kid, because he acted like a child—was, he was just crazy and didn’t understand why he couldn’t go lights and sirens through Vegas, and fully believed that, if he wanted to, he could buy the Bellagio Hotel. I mean, he had access to Libya’s $60 billion sovereign wealth funds. You asked about working for the Gaddafis—that was really an eye-opening adventure into their psychology.

MG: What year was this?

PE: It was the same year that Gaddafi spoke at the United Nations General Assembly.  I believe that was 2010 or 2011.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: So it seems like in the book, a fair amount of your experiences, especially early on, you’re in scenarios where you kind of don’t know what you’re getting into until you show up. And I’m just wondering, if you could go back and tell your younger self something about this, what would you tell your younger self? 

PE: Well, I was pretty smart about a few things early on. I knew that I had to make friends with a lot of reporters, and I made that an emphasis in my social life, and I knew it would be a good idea to make friends with my lawyer. He has kept me out of a lot of problems. So that’s the advice that I would give to younger folks in this line of work: make friends with reporters and make friends with your lawyer. 

VVG: There’s also some exchanges with your accountant in here.

PE: Yes! The accountants at PR firms always hate the practitioners. That’s a fairly common thread. We don’t see eye to eye. We think there’s always an endless amount of money, and the accountants disagree on that notion.

VVG: This is so interesting to me because I grew up in this area. A lot of the scene setting, like when you refer to The Willard Hotel, or Old Ebbitt Grill, these are places I grew up knowing, and this is a book by a D.C. insider, but you didn’t grow up there, you grew up in Idaho. But your instincts for all of this work seem to have been so swift and strong, and I wonder, you sort of almost by luck ended up in this firm, and then you kept going. 

Honestly, this is very similar to how I ended up in academia, and here I am. So what were the most fun parts of it early on, where you were like, “Oh, I’m kind of into this,” and, “Oh, I should make friends with reporters?” How did you know that you should make friends with a lot of reporters?

PE: Well, I was struggling trying to get my client on television. It was a documentary, and it’s the most profane PG-13 documentary in history, I believe. It’s called Gunner Palace, and this is my first assignment in PR. And it was during the second Iraq War, just after 9/11, and my job was to keep a PG-13 rating on this documentary about soldiers who lived in Uday Hussein’s bombed-out palace in the Adhamiyah section of Baghdad. 

Well, there were firefights in this film, and the soundtrack was entirely hip hop done by the soldiers about their experience living in Baghdad. So yeah, the word “fuck” appeared in the film a few times—about 60 or 70 times. Now the MPAA has a rule that, if the word “fuck” appears more than twice in a movie, it gets an automatic R rating. I think it’s actually more than once. So our job was to appeal the rating. So we got a bunch of press about how kids needed to see this movie because they were the ones thinking about enlisting in the military, and so we kept the PG-13 rating on it. It was a successful adventure, and I put my client on all three of the cable news networks, and it was a lot of fun. So that was the first time that I knew that I was okay at this.

Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Keillan Doyle.

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Phil Elwood

All the Worst Humans: How I Made New for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians

Others:

“Sri Lanka, Lobbyists and War Crimes” by Ken Silverstein | Harper’s Magazine | October 23, 2009 •  “Gunner Palace,” by Peter Travers | Rolling Stone | February 24, 2005 • “Nothing seemed to treat their depression. Then they tried ketamine,” by Meryl Kornfield | The Washington Post | September 12, 2022 • John Grisham • Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election by Robert Mueller | U.S. Department of Justice | March 2019

 

 



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