7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018

Don't leave our public relations in the hands of PR mercenaries

As we enter a New Year and approach the second anniversary of the start of Bahrain's period of unrest, it is time to reflect on contributions made by various agencies, media and individuals who have all been a part of Bahrain's defence against the wall of vicious, uncorroborated and sometimes deceitful propaganda against the kingdom.

The role of the individual pen in my opinion stands out as a glowing testament of loyalty, honour and truth. The letters pages of local and international media have carried some exceptionally well crafted and reasoned articles, which have not only reflected the reality of Bahrain's socio-political issues but have also debunked some of the blatant untruths, which have over the past couple of years been absorbed by an assortment of international media, the agenda of which is to sow the seeds of chaos in our society.

Then there is the local media, which has over the entire period of the crisis bravely reported facts, carrying news and articles which have presented both sides of a story that has so unfortunately divided and polarised what has until recently been a unified kingdom of tolerance amidst diversity. The media in Bahrain has grown in stature and maturity providing detailed accounts and analysis of the events since February 14, 2011 in a generally positive and constructive manner.

Both the individuals and media who have stepped up to defend the kingdom have done so without being asked, tasked or paid to do so. The kingdom has followed the well-worn path of employing as its defenders-in-chief, a clutch of agencies that have been paid to represent it in the international media arena. Unfortunately, this strategy has been widely acclaimed as a failure not just by citizens of Bahrain but also by the international media. The truth about what has happened in Bahrain has rarely been reported by the international media due, in my opinion, to the unprofessional way in which these agencies have handled their task.

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.

There is no doubt that significant sums of money have been provided for companies such as Bell Pottinger (who fled from Bahrain at the start of the unrest at a time when they were required to defend the kingdom). These levels of payment are open to public scrutiny through official publications. However, 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. The hired defenders have become the story which in PR terms is a disaster.

Take for example the Times front page of April 6, 2012 - "Bahrain's Charm Offensive". The story was not the message that Bahrain had employed these companies to spread i.e. the reality of the situation in Bahrain. Instead, what was highlighted was a story about "lavished funds on compliant PR firms to salvage Bahrain's tarnished image". 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' with which many citizens of Bahrain had also identified.

Nevertheless the initial flurry of international anti-Bahrain sentiment has certainly dissipated significantly over the past few months, due in no small part to the government's positive and commendable actions in the past year and very little to the efforts of international PR companies hired by Bahrain.

The problem with PR gurus and organisations is that they can put a spin on virtually any situation and no matter how much negative publicity is out there, they will always claim that it could have been a lot worse without their involvement, whilst at the same time seeing their bank balances grow significantly.

What do we wish for our PR in 2013?

My take on the subject is that the best PR for our country comes from within our borders and through our strategically placed diplomatic missions. It is far better to spend our precious funds on supporting the local media and ensuring that our ambassadors and consuls have both the resources and training to handle the politicians and journalists in each of their respective countries. This training should be much more than the current vacuous media training provided by these consultants. I for one would not wish to place the nation's international image in the hands of a group of PR mercenaries, who have in the past failed to make a distinction between providing services to a demagogue such as Gadaffi (as in the case of Bell Pottinger) and handling the affairs of a bona fide "client" such as our own progressive and fully legitimate Ruling family. The Al Khalifa family has guided the development of this beloved country for almost a quarter of a millennium and the legitimacy of their rule stems not only from their historic tenure but also from the National Charter. International bearers of ill will towards our country seem to have forgotten that Bahrain's Constitution evolved from the National Charter which received an internationally acclaimed positive vote of acceptance by 98.4 per cent of voters back in 2001.

Our own media and PR professionals have proved that they can operate regionally and internationally. Our diplomatic missions are already well entrenched in the most important capitals in the world. Now, with support from the government, these two loyal and capable segments of our society should take on the role of representing the true reality of Bahrain to the international community in a way which is only possible by those who are an integral part of the kingdom. 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.

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