The Trade Tells Its Side

When it became clear that Blood Diamond would be made, diamond industry public relations people worried that the bigger danger might be the publicity surrounding it, rather than the movie itself. That turned out to be true. The film may not have scored big at the box office, but it did lead to some critical media coverage about the conflict diamond issue.

Plans for the industry’s educational campaign began when the movie was announced. There was considerable wariness about the film, especially based on early versions of the script. “I think our worst fears were that the movie would come out and not be in any kind of historical context,” says Sally Morrison, director of the Diamond Information Center, De Beers’ U.S. public relations arm. “It would give people the impression that the war was still going on in Sierra Leone.”

Eventually, the diamond industry decided to throw its weight behind a $15 million public relations campaign and hired damage control guru Allan Mayer of Sitrick and Co. in Los Angeles, who moved to another agency—42West, also in Los Angeles—while the campaign was under way. “When we decided that we wanted to do a massive campaign in a short time, we wanted to call on the biggest experts,” notes World Diamond Council chairman Eli Izhakoff. “I am a diamond person. I don’t know how to do PR. We had a message; we just needed the right way to bring it out.”

People who worked with Mayer credit him with not only advising the diamond trade on strategy but also figuring out which reporters would be open to the trade’s point of view. He also believes in getting your word out early. Mayer, whose office did not return a call from JCK, explained his theory of damage control to Entertainment Weekly: “If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you, and chances are you won’t like the way it comes out.”

The campaign launched a Web site, www.diamondfacts.org, which, along with newspaper ads announcing it, put the issue on the media’s radar. Industry critics say that raised the profile of both the film and the issue. Morrison doesn’t dispute that but argues the industry had to get ahead of the story. “The media is going to write something,” she says. “I was convinced we needed to engage. We had to get our point of view across.”

The media generally portrayed the campaign as hostile to the film, but Morrison paints a more complex picture. She says the WDC campaign was shown to Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, before it went online, and that the DIC had talked with the company about cosponsoring the film’s premiere to highlight “ethical diamonds.” In the end, the producers decided to coordinate their marketing efforts with nongovernmental organizations Global Witness and Amnesty International, which marketed red “blood diamond” bracelets and set up a Web site, BloodDiamondAction.org.

Even so, the trade tried to avoid getting into a battle with the film’s producers. “At no time did we say we were hostile to the film,” notes Izhakoff. “We never attacked the movie. We just wanted to make sure it was placed in its historical context.”

But many became skeptical when two stories that were damaging to the film appeared in the New York Post‘s Page Six column. One claimed the film had backed out of promises to deliver prosthetics for the orphans used as extras in the film; the second said an on-set accident had cost a crew member a hand. As damaging as those stories were to the film, they made the industry look worse. Their back-to-back placements—and the inclusion of a note in one slamming the Los Angeles Times for an error about De Beers—seem to indicate the diamond industry was behind them.

“When those stories broke in the press, people on the film assumed that we collectively were behind them because we were an easy kind of target,” says Morrison. “The stories had nothing to do with us. But they frustrated the studio, clearly.” The culprit some pointed the finger at—Mayer—told LA Weekly he didn’t plant the stories.

Few believed him, and Bonnie Abaunza, director of Amnesty International’s celebrity outreach program, told LA Weekly: “I think this story was planted by the World Diamond Council, and I think this story was planted in an attempt to impact the Oscar buzz on this film. But there’s no way to prove it. And the stories are going to get nastier.”

Actually, there were no more stories after that, but the fiasco led to the perception that the industry was scared of the film and waging war against it. At one point, an interviewer from ABCnews.com asked leading man Leonardo DiCaprio whether he anticipated “the voracity of the response of the international diamond industry against this film.”

DiCaprio responded, “I had never anticipated, no, that it would be this intense, by any means.” Later, LA Weekly said pressure from industry advertisers was preventing the film’s stars from being interviewed by glossy magazines—a charge Morrison dismisses as nonsense, noting that editorial and advertising are separate on those magazines.

Some of the campaign’s biggest victories were behind the scenes. Nelson Mandela wrote Warner Bros. asking that the film not hurt demand for diamonds from Africa. “That was on his own,” Izhakoff says. “The people in those countries have a lot more at stake in this than I have.”

Perhaps because of that, or their conversations with NGOs, the film’s director and star stressed that the film was not advising consumers not to buy diamonds. In addition, when Oprah spotlighted the issue, it was surprisingly favorable, mentioning the industry’s contributions to Botswana and Namibia and noting that less than 1 percent of diamonds are involved in conflicts.

The NGOs were less conciliatory. In a news conference before the film opened, Global Witness called the Kimberley Process “full of loopholes” and said the industry could not guarantee its diamonds were conflict-free. This alienated some of their traditional allies, including Partnership Africa Canada, which was nominated for a Nobel Prize with Global Witness for its work on the conflict diamonds issue. PAC’s Ian Smillie called Amnesty “semi-hysterical” in the Rapaport Diamond Report.

“I can’t say I wasn’t frustrated at times, but I understand the NGOs’ position,” says Izhakoff. “They want to get as much attention as possible for what they are doing.”

“The NGOs were doing their job, which is to drive interest in the conflict diamond issue, because that is the issue they work,” agrees Morrison, an NGO veteran herself. “They are supposed to keep society honest and to keep challenging and keep interrogating, and it is a good thing we live in a society where we have organizations like that.”

By the time the film came out, many were relieved the movie was not as damaging as expected. “Once we’d seen the film, we were very comfortable that they had done a fair job,” says Morrison. “I thought it was very responsible they mentioned Kimberley. They mentioned Sierra Leone being at peace.”

The film opened to mixed reviews and performed below expectations, landing in fifth place its first weekend and falling after that. While audience feedback was generally favorable, the film’s final domestic take will probably hover around $60 million—disappointing for a film with a $100 million budget.

At a United Nations panel, star Djimon Hounsou said he thought the movie didn’t do well because people wanted a “feel- good” movie at the holidays. It’s also likely that the increased attention on the issue hurt it. It made what was a conventional film seem like a heavy-handed, issue-oriented epic, one that would make people feel bad about an object they already own—call it the “feel-guilt movie of the year.” Even the nomination of stars DiCaprio and Hounsou for Academy Awards didn’t help its prospects. The movie had five nominations but won no Oscars.

Although the firestorm sparked by the movie has largely passed, WDC says its campaign will continue. “I think the campaign has to continue to educate people,” says Morrison. “This is a dynamic issue. The Kimberley Process has to be made better. It’s not close to perfect; in that, we agree with the NGOs. There is still more work to be done.”

She continues, “I think the industry has proven that when we are interrogated from outside we can step up and explain and do very well and be understood. The diamond industry has a very mixed reputation that is a holdover from many years past. There hasn’t been a thorough and systematic plan to address these things.”

Izhakoff agrees but feels it wasn’t the campaign that saved the industry, but its past actions. “I always felt that if we did the right thing—which means not just talking, but acting—things would fall right for us,” he says. “If we hadn’t done all the work that we did, we could have been attacked very badly. We invested a lot of time in the Kimberley Process, and this was the payoff.”