Given the barrage of negative publicity that has dogged the forthcoming World Cup event in Qatar, the phrase “poisoned chalice” springs to mind.
Accusations of bribery and corruption abound, including allegations that the state actively campaigned to smear rival bidders. There has been scathing criticism from Amnesty International for the state's failure to protect the human rights of foreign workers involved in the construction of five stadia for the event (a Guardian report claims 6,500 have died in the country since it won the bid).
England manager Gareth Southgate has repeatedly raised concerns about the ill-treatment of migrant workers and the rights of women and LGBTQ fans attending the tournament, in a country where homosexuality is illegal and women often require permission from male relatives to marry, work and travel overseas.
With all this in mind, is it even possible for Qatar to have a fair hearing for hosting the event?
It has not been a smooth road. Back in 2014, PRWeek reported that two of the five top-tier global PR agencies FIFA invited to pitch for both the Qatar and preceding Russian World Cups pulled themselves out of contention, with one industry insider describing the brief as “mission impossible.”
Teneo Holdings took on representing FIFA for “operational and reputational” work in 2015, but declined to comment for this piece. Teneo has also advised Qatar's official delivery body for the World Cup since 2012.
Qatar has also been the site of a diplomatic crisis that saw an embargo imposed against it for three years by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that was only officially resolved in January last year.
The four Arab states cut ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism.
Indeed, several commentators felt unable to go on the record for this article, citing political sensitivities amid the aftermath of the crisis.
Jonty Summers, managing director of Hanover Communications in the Middle East, tells PRWeek: “The only thing that will make people forget the controversy is if there's a flawlessly executed tournament with great football and a terrific spirit in the stands.”
Hanover, which has no role in the World Cup and does not operate in Qatar, was the crisis agency of record for Expo 2020 in Dubai, providing reputation management and crisis communication plans for the event, which attracted more than 25 million visitors.
Amid the scrutiny of mega projects in the region, it provided comms on the welfare of workers during the six-year construction period, defending an accident rate of less than half that of building work in Britain in comparison with stats recorded by the UK Health and Safety Executive. (Three workers were killed and 72 were seriously hurt.)
Summers says: “If you start with the positives: it’s the first time the World Cup has been in the Middle East and that is a great thing. It's a football-mad region and so for the people of the region, who are a very friendly, warm and welcoming people, there will be a lot of pride about welcoming the world's best football teams to it.
“Doha has invested a lot of money in it. And it’ll want to show off some of the things that are not perhaps that well understood outside the region, about the culture and society, that actually are really very positive for the region."
Travel-wise, the tournament will be a boon for tourism and indeed local journeys between the Gulf states, with hospitality preparing to cater for 1.2 million visitors from around the world. According to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, the event is expected to be watched by five billion people around the world, with TV audiences for the 2018 World Cup in Russia hitting a record-breaking 3.5 billion.
"Of course there will be challenges," says Summers.
“I mean, just looking back to the last World Cup; let's take fan behaviour. Without saying that football fans always riot, occasionally things happen. So, if fan behaviour goes awry, particularly if alcohol is involved, I’ll be interested to see how that is dealt with by the authorities.”
While the rules on alcohol during the tournament have yet to be officially finalised, at time of press the stadia were set to be alcohol-free, with beer sales outside arenas only allowed before and after some matches.
While Summers admits comms for the event will be a demanding, he insists he can see the opportunities first and foremost.
He says: “If I was to do it, the narrative is around opportunity, bringing football to the Middle East. And doing it brilliantly. Showing what Qatar is good at, showing it to be a football-mad nation. The Gulf doesn't really have that reputation in the world and a lot of people joke they’re better at owning clubs rather than playing.”
Whether Qatar will be able to shake off the bribery and rights elements surrounding the tournament remains to be seen, but as Summers points out, until it officially begins, everything else is pure speculation.
He adds: “Remember London 2012? Everyone was totally doom and gloom and saying it was going to be a terrible Olympics. And it was actually brilliant. You never know until it starts.”
In May, Qatar’s ruling Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani criticised attacks on Qatar by some people, “including many in positions of influence”, over its hosting of the event.
“Even today, there are still people who cannot accept the idea that an Arab Muslim country would host a tournament like the World Cup,” he said in a speech at the World Economic Forum.
He said Qatar, like other states, was “not perfect” but has pushed reforms and development. Reforms include raising the minimum wage and new rules authorities say are designed to protect workers, including from heat stress.
Qatar’s specially appointed Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy has also addressed the criticism by citing the World Cup as a “catalyst for change”.
Communications executive director Fatma Al Nuaimi said last month: “If you look at the social aspect of the tournament, which is the worker’s welfare and human rights, the development and transformation that have happened in the 10 years are major for us.
“A lot of things have been exaggerated. We introduced a new minimum wage and people can easily change their jobs. One hundred thousand people have successfully changed their jobs since then. The entry and exit to and from the country has been changed to the benefit of the workers.”
She also played down concerns the event could be boycotted following negative press.
She said: “We have had plenty of interest in the first and second phases of ticket sales. People want to come to the tournament and want to be there. The top countries that have applied for the tickets are Argentina, Mexico, USA, UK, UAE and Germany among others. Football is really popular and people can’t wait because it's the first big gathering in football since COVID-19.”
Sameh Hamtini, executive VP for the Middle East at ASDA’A BCW, tells PRWeek: “I think the whole world now wants something positive, wants something to celebrate. The region has had a lot of negative publicity but we’ve worked on it and we would like the world to come and enjoy it. We would like the international media to start to look at it from a different perspective. This is an invitation to the world to experience the Middle East.
“This is a challenge but also an opportunity where the whole world will be in one place. This is a genuine global festival.
“If we will look at it from a communications perspective, usually what matters or what really helps address any crisis is when you communicate action, so action, not words, is needed.
“My view is that it’s not just the communicators who can make this happen – this is where everyone needs to pitch in. Whether it is the organisers, the football teams, or the nations who are coming, it is not one entity’s responsibility alone. It's everyone. We all need to make this a global mission to bring back celebration to the world. It's not about polishing Qatar's reputation or hiding [the issues] under the carpet.”