James Halliwell
Jul 25, 2022

Why is Edelman working with Saudi Arabia?

Edelman, the biggest PR firm in the world, has confirmed to PRWeek UK that it has been commissioned to boost the reputation of Saudi Arabia. What's the thinking behind the controversial move?

Why is Edelman working with Saudi Arabia?

It emerged earlier this week that Edelman had pitched to work with Saudi Arabia on a programme to improve cultural ties between Saudi and the US and to improve the country's reputation in the West.

Edelman has now confirmed to PRWeek UK that the pitch document uncovered by Politico was genuine, that it is working with Saudi on this programme, but that it cannot comment further on government work such as this.

For many this a startling decision – not least because Edelman has positioned itself as an ethical beacon in recent years, including releasing a set of ethical principles in response to criticism over working with Big Oil companies, backing Ukraine in a well-publicised campaign launch at Cannes, and launching a ‘Gen Z lab’ to appeal to a younger progressive mindset.

So plans to take $787,000 – the amount registered via the FARA (the Foreign Agents Registration Act) – for PR activities aimed at improving the reputation of Saudi Arabiaa controversial state in recent years, is a curious move. The way Politico reported them, they sound like a weird juxtaposition of knockabout fun set against a backdrop of human rights violations.

Edelman has made several filings with FARA relating to PR work for Saudi Arabia, including this latest one, which covers research, plans and strategy, media relations, strategic partnerships and social media activity. 

Chris Whitehouse, who runs UK-based Whitehouse Communications and recently earned an MA in Contemporary Ethics, describes Edelman's decision to work for Saudi on a project such as this as a “shocking development" that "risks bringing the wider comms profession into disrepute. Saudi Arabia has a dreadful record of capital punishment, repression of women, the use of torture and the murder, dismemberment and dissolving in acid of the body of Jamal Kashoggi, a journalist who dared to challenge the official narrative of the brutal Saudi autocracy. It also has a long history of illicitly funding terrorism. On 12 March this year, the Saudi regime executed 81 people in the largest known mass execution performed in the modern history of Saudi Arabia. So how can the Edelman team, and its shareholders, sleep at night with such blood money coming in?”

Business is business

“I’m not particularly surprised,” says Trevor Morris, former chief executive of UK PR agencies including QBO and Chime Communications, and co-author of Public Relations Ethics: The Real-World Guide, although he acknowledges that Kashoggi’s murder means it “may have been a harder decision to make now than a couple of years ago”.

Nonetheless, Morris also says: “Everyone knows Saudi Arabia is not a democracy in any way, and that it has many human rights issues, but governments, and people, still trade with it. If the question is ‘Can you do business with countries that aren’t perfect [when it comes to human rights]?’ then I think the answer has to be yes – though it depends on what you’re being asked to do for them. Lie for them? Absolutely not. Present them in the best possible light? I guess an argument can be made for that. There must be positive aspects to Saudi Arabia as a country, sides to it which perhaps aren’t widely known and therefore aren’t appreciated. In itself, I don’t think [promoting] that is illegitimate.”

Comms ethics and geopolitics is a particularly topical debate in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The UK government introduced a blanket ban on working with Russian clients, but Saudi Arabia is different, says Morris.

“With Russia there is a consensus throughout the UK that working with them would be entirely unethical, that there are no redeeming features, so any financial hit must be taken because the moral need to do something overwhelms everything else. That doesn’t apply to Saudi Arabia.”

Maybe it should? Agency-world hasn’t been slow to offer its opinion on social media. ‘Shame on your bullshit insincerity’ is the jist.





Bad PR

Morris suggests that perhaps the West is “more dependent on Saudi at this moment in time, maybe even because of the war in Ukraine. We live in the real world; that’s why Biden went to Saudi Arabia, even when he possibly didn't want to.”

Biden's trip proved controversial, but there are also other high-profile examples of UK outfits doing business with Saudi, not least Newcastle United Football Club – 80 per cent of which has been owned (since October 2021) by the Saudi sovereign Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia's LIV golf league, and the boxing rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua, which takes place in Saudi Arabia on 20 August, have also caused controversy. Clearly, Edelman is not alone in working with Saudi Arabia, and the question of whether it should is not clear-cut.

That said, it's hard to escape the optics. Externally this looks reputationally awkward for the biggest PR firm in the world, while internally it faces a comms challenge in convincing its own staff, and existing clients, that this is a wise decision.

Staff may not relish the prospect of teasing out the sunny side of Saudi Arabia. And Edelman clients may not enjoy lining up next to Saudi Arabia on Edelman’s client roster.

“It’s a practical issue when it comes to clients and staff, and that will be very interesting,” says Morris. “What are the ethical standpoints of the Edelman staff and its clients? Will their staff want to do it, and will their clients like it? I would assume Edelman will say to staff: ‘You don’t have to work on it if you don’t want to.’ I would be very surprised if they don’t take that stance. And there is also the question of what the rest of the profession will think of you.”

Still, as Morris points out: “When it comes down to it, Edelman has worked for controversial clients before, and it hasn’t held them back. Should anyone be trying to promote Saudi Arabia? If not, then no one should provide them with anything. And sometimes working for controversial clients makes you more attractive to other controversial clients, so there is a practical financial benefit for Edelman. And the account offers a pretty substantial budget. So there will be a number of things that Edelman will have weighed up.”

Money talks loudly in boardrooms, but the $787,000 that Edelman is set to invoice Saudi Arabia for is a tiny fraction of the $984,921,000 it billed clients last year. And given the negative PR it's generated for the agency (and the rehash of Saudi Arabia's human rights record along the way), plenty of people in the PR industry – and elsewhere – may be left wondering why Edelman accepted the commission in the first place.









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