I arrived at Brazil's PR firm's fancy upstairs offices where a company rep provided me with a glossy green booklet showcasing Brazil's many economic accomplishments.
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An economic and social powerhouse, Brazil has burst forth on to the world stage with such tenacious drive and determination that observers may indeed wonder what sort of political impact the South American giant will have upon the wider region in the coming years. Though the country still faces incredible domestic challenges, the outgoing Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva administration has done much to put Brazil's house in order and the president leaves office with record 80% popularity. Unlike its volatile and unstable Andean neighbors, Brazil has consolidated a credible democracy and recently concluded the first round of its presidential vote.

The election went smoothly and Brazil now moves to a second round which will take place on the 31st of October. In all likelihood, Lula's protégé Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party will emerge victorious and continue the president's successful anti-poverty programs which have helped millions make the transition from poverty to middle class status. As the poor advance socially, it is hoped they will begin to feel that they have a stake in the system and Brazil's democracy will become more stable and robust as a result.

Brazilian authorities, however, are concerned that outsiders may ignore such advances and focus instead upon their country's horrific drug-related crime scene, urban favelas and startling rural injustice. In an effort to burnish Brazil's image, Lula recently told SECOM, the president's own Secretariat for Social Communication, to focus laser-like on international public relations. In tandem with Lula's desires, SECOM has sought to give Brazil a makeover by emphasizing the country's solid democracy, robust economy, pacifist-oriented diplomacy and environmentally sustainable policies. SECOM directs its efforts at journalists, opinion makers, investors, academics and students while conducting key seminars, trips and interviews.

The Brazilian PR Juggernaut

Much to my surprise, SECOM recently contacted me via the New York public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, asking if I would like to take part in an all expense paid trip to Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia to witness Brazil's election and final presidential debate. During the five day trip, I would have the opportunity to speak with political scientists, non-governmental organizations and representatives from the major presidential campaigns. What is more, I would also have access to regulators overseeing the election and organizers would even set up a visit to Brazil's Upper Electoral Court.

In the midst of the summer doldrums, I jumped at the chance. When I learned, however, that the trip would be partially funded by Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras, also known as Eletrobras, a state-controlled Brazilian utility involved in the hydropower industry, I started to wonder why SECOM would be interested in sponsoring me in particular. In my book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), I rip the Brazilian hydropower industry for its environmental record, specifically in regard to methane emissions which exacerbate climate change. In an e-mail, I asked Fleishman whether I would be at liberty to ask whatever questions I saw fit during the trip and to later report on my findings. Of course, Fleishman responded, adding that all comments were considered to be entirely on the record.

The trip, I learned, was to be organized by Apex Brazil, the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency. An entity which has done much to marshal Brazil's vast economic might, Apex represents more than 10,000 companies organized in more than 70 different sectors ranging from agribusiness to housing to entertainment and machinery. The list of Apex-supported products is exhaustive and includes everything from biscuits to coffee, from meat to equipment for the service of Brazil's ethanol industry and from aircraft parts to yerba maté tea. Headquartered in Brasilia, Apex also maintains branches in Beijing, Dubai, Miami, Havana, Warsaw and Moscow. If that was not enough, the agency plans to open new business support centers in Luanda and Brussels. Buzzing with activity, Apex sports 300 employees working around the clock to enhance their country's international profile.

I don't know why, exactly, Eletrobras as well as other sponsors Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company, and Banco do Brasil would be interested in funding a press junket to South America, though perhaps the companies believed they would benefit, in a general kind of way, from media coverage of the election. In a long-term sense, if the election were to go off without a hitch, then this in turn would improve Brazil's political standing and thereby attract outside investment. Moreover, in advance of the 2016 Olympic Games set for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is intent upon securing its international reputation.

After reading up on Fleishman-Hillard, I began to understand why I might have been included in this particular press junket. The PR firm, along with its Brazilian public relations partner Companhia de Noticias or CDN, recently won an award for their "Green Diplomacy" campaign highlighting Lula's global influence on the environmental sustainability issue. Fleishman is really pressing the environmental angle: prior to my departure for Rio the PR firm sent me an e-mail stating that Environment Minister Isabella Teixeira would be in New York and would like to meet with me.

Brazil does not skimp when it comes to PR. Located near the United Nations in Manhattan, Fleishman is no pushover firm. The building itself has a big globe in the front lobby which looked somehow familiar. Then it hit me: this building served as the very set for the 1978 hit film Superman. Indeed, actor Christopher Reeve routinely passed in and out of the building's revolving door on his way to his reporting job at the Daily Planet. Continuing on, I arrived at the company's fancy upstairs offices where a company rep provided me with a glossy green booklet showcasing Brazil's many economic accomplishments.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article.

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