Bahrain's failed charm offensive

There's an interesting article – for once – in today's Gulf Daily News (GDN), a generally pro-government newspaper which bills itself as "the voice of Bahrain".

The article is an extraordinary attack on what its headline calls "PR mercenaries" – British and American "reputation management" firms hired by the Bahraini government at great expense to polish up the kingdom's image.

The firms involved have often been criticised in the west for accepting repressive governments as their clients but the GDN article looks at the issue from the other side and suggests that from the Bahraini government's point of view the PR effort has been next to useless.

The article's author, Anwar Abdulrahman, who is editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej (the Arabic-language sister paper of the GDN), writes:

"How much has been spent by Bahrain on these PR experts and agencies over the past two years? According to various sources, the figure over the 18 months following the start of the unrest has reached millions of dollars in fees. 

"Firms involved in this group of hired hands, including Washington DC-based Qorvis Communications and London-based Bell Pottinger, have undertaken a number of tasks including writing and placing opinion pieces supporting Bahrain in western media outlets, briefing western journalists about the political situation in Bahrain, creating websites and feeding social media accounts to create public opinion and arranging meetings with western government officials. The irony is that the opposition has been welcomed to make its biased case in these news outlets at a fraction of the cost incurred by Bahrain."

[Incidentally, part of the latter paragraph seems to have been copied from the Bahrain Watch website which is critical of the government – though with one subtle change. Where Bahrain Watch talks about PR firms placing media articles "supporting the government", Abdulrahman says they were "supporting Bahrain".]

Abdulrahman continues:

"What has not been sufficiently scrutinised is the value for money that Bahrain has received. Are the dollar millions being spent on international PR producing tangible, quantifiable and genuine results?

"The answer is yes there are quantifiable results, but not the results that would necessarily say that the money was well spent for the benefit of the kingdom."

Abdulrahman makes two perceptive points about the reasons for this PR failure. One is that some western journalists, instead of swallowing the government's line as expected, wrote critically about the kingdom's "charm offensive". "The hired defenders have become the story," Abdulrahman says – "which in PR terms is a disaster".

The second problem was that paying foreign PR firms large amounts of money to spread "good news" about Bahrain tended to devalue the message:

"It appeared that Bahrain's hired guns were not known for their commitment to a cause or to the truth but rather to their loyalty to the 'dollar-a-fact' ... "

This is not Abdulrahman's first public spat with western PR firms. Last June, discussing the international controversy over the holding of the Bahrain Grand Prix, he singled out Bell-Pottinger and a British lobbyist, Lord Paddy Gillford (the 8th Earl of Clanwilliam), for special criticism:

"We have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford [sic] and public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger (whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as trouble started). They have milked the country's financial resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any positive result."

A row between the two men then ensued in the letters section of the GDN, with Abdulrahman telling the Earl of Clanwilliam:

"You have been paid handsomely to lobby on behalf of the kingdom for many years ... you obviously have not done a very good job because the total lack of support which Bahrain has received from the media in the UK shows us clearly that the kingdom has no friends amongst the international press."

Abdulrahman also complained:

"Whenever you visit the kingdom, rather than meeting with myself or other members of the national press, you seem to prefer to play golf." 


The solution Abdulrahman proposes for this is to place Bahrain's charm offensive in the hands of Bahrainis rather than foreigners. In his June article, he wrote:

"There are many highly capable, mature, experienced Bahrainis and expatriates who have been in this field all of their professional working lives. They are the ones fully aware of internal politics, and only experts of such calibre can explain and influence western thought and decision-making."

In today's article, he continues this theme:

"Our own media and PR professionals have proved that they can operate regionally and internationally ... It is time that we put the image of Bahrain into the hands of people who are passionate and committed to the natural evolution of democracy in a kingdom rich in diversity and tolerance.

"Let us never forget that only people living in Bahrain with their livelihoods at stake, will be true defenders of the honour of our noble country."

Abdulrahman is said to be close to Bahrain's prime minister, so this may reflect the government's current thinking on the use of PR. But there may also be an element of special pleading. Reading between the lines of both articles, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Abdulrahman might be volunteering his own services (in the event that His Majesty the King sees fit to appoint him, of course).

There is, however, a more effective solution to the image problem that Abdulrahman doesn't – or can't – mention. It's for the government of Bahrain to get on with the reforms it keeps talking about, and to stop behaving in ways that attract criticism.

Yesterday brought more bad news on the PR front. Ian Black of the Guardian reports:

"Britain has expressed 'deep dismay' at a decision by Bahrain's highest court to reject an appeal by 13 opposition activists who were convicted of involvement in the Arab spring protests in 2011.

"Eight of 20 defendants were given life sentences, part of a crackdown on dissent since anti-government demonstrations erupted in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, home to the US navy's fifth fleet ...

"The high-profile case has brought international pressure to bear on Bahrain, criticised even by its friends for failing to implement reforms recommended by an independent commission of inquiry.

"Monday's strongly-worded statement by UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt reflected that. France's foreign ministry also expressed regret at the Bahraini court ruling and said it had hoped for leniency to help promote reconciliation. Amnesty International said: 'This unjust decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary is more concerned about toeing the government's line than upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Bahrainis'."