Indecent Exposure: A Brand Nightmare of Reputation Proportions

Into every marketer’s life, a brand nightmare must come. It starts with an old tale about a PR executive explaining to a client that the client has to make some more public and press appearances to get more exposure. “If I had any more exposure,” says the frustrated client, “I’d be arrested for indecency.”

brand nightmare

Into every marketer’s life, a brand nightmare must come. It starts with an old tale about a PR executive explaining to a client that the client has to make some more public and press appearances to get more exposure. “If I had any more exposure,” says the frustrated client, “I’d be arrested for indecency.”

“Indecency” is about the mildest thing you can say about the events of the past few weeks, as the media has overflowed with stories about the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Turkey. Reports are that a hit squad of Saudis apparently flew in on private jets for their grisly purpose and then rapidly out again, perhaps with Khashoggi’s dismembered body in their hand luggage. For Saudi Arabia, a nation expensively trying to change its worldwide repressive image, and for the agencies serving it, it is a public relations nightmare. Crisis communications can hardly encounter a deeper brand reputation challenge.

If the business of public relations is to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public on whom their success or failure depends, the good news for the Saudis was that the exposure they were gaining pre-Khashoggi appeared to be effectively promoting positive change in the perception of the kingdom.

The bad news is that classic PR problem: If the client demonstrates he is not what he has been expensively pictured to be, the backlash can destroy all of the previous goodwill, and then some. The image management crusade becomes a shambles.

When the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in 2017 and announced his mission to modernize the country and make it an important part of the international community, no longer only recognized for its petroleum output, not surprisingly, voracious, business-hungry PR firms grabbed the next flight to the kingdom to share in what was certain to be a bonanza of fees.

The Financial Times reported in September that the kingdom’s information ministry was seeking “to promote the changing face of KSA to the rest of the world and to improve international perception of the kingdom.”

Although the world’s largest PR agency, Burson-Marsteller, already had a big contract with the Saudis, according to Media Group RT, other companies including The Harbour Group, Hill & Knowlton, King & Spalding, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Fleishman-Hillard Inc. and Hogan & Hartson, all managed to get a piece of what was a lot of action. Some have already ended the relationship.

The resulting effort was a generally successful zillion-dollar “charm” campaign earlier this year. The brand reputation effort’s star attraction, Prince Mohammed, visited the U.K. and then extensively toured the U.S., meeting with President Donald Trump,  government and business leaders, dot.com and showbiz celebrities, and pitched the benefits of investment in his new liberalizing country. There were some anti-Saudi demonstrations. But generally, the reception was surprisingly good.

In addition to promising giant business contracts, the prince handed out invitations to the Oct. 23-25 Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert” and intended to be, as Khashoggi’s Washington Post commented; “a magnet for financiers, corporate titans, technology executives, government leaders and media bigwigs. It once boasted a list of attendees that resembled the crowd that converges each year at the Alpine playground for the global elite.” The PR companies must have been jubilant at the success of their efforts and all the positive media coverage.

Until the Khashoggi disaster, that was.

Suddenly, Prince Salman and his cronies have become toxic. With the tsunami of withdrawals by speakers and participants from the Future Investment Initiative, it looked to be a very lonely conference, anything but a Davos look-alike.

How now for the PR firms (if they are still willing to serve the Saudis) to unscramble these eggs? How are they to manage the reputation of the Saudi brand and of themselves? The PR textbook teaches us that crisis management is built on taking quick, honest, transparent and direct action. Admittedly, this is an exceptional circumstance. But by all accounts, the Saudis have been anything but quick, honest, transparent or direct. Feeling the blowback, they will now have to keep their heads down, find a believable narrative of accountability and take appropriate action.

At this point in time, the PR agencies, which generated lots of exposure for the kingdom and no doubt formerly wished for a long and profitable relationship with the country, are now having to deal with indecency and some at least are having second thoughts.

Capital Communicator reports that as a result of the Khashoggi incident, “The Harbour Group has ended its $80K per month contract with Saudi Arabia” and “WPP’s Glover Park Group and BGR Government Affairs have also severed ties with Saudi Arabia.” All who so recently had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads should be reminded of the wise adage: Be careful what you wish for.

Author: Peter J. Rosenwald

Peter J. Rosenwald is an expat American living and working in Brazil; founder and first CEO of Wunderman Worldwide, International Division of Wunderman agency) and first chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Direct Worldwide; strategist and senior executive in charge of building subscription and data-driven marketing for Editora Abril, Latin America's leading magazine publisher; founder of Consult Partners, active strategic marketing consultancy working in Brazil, U.S. and U.K. International keynote speaker on data-driven marketing and author of "Accountable Marketing" (Thomson), "Profiting From the Magic of Marketing Metrics" (Direct Marketing IQ), and "GringoView" blog author for Brazilian Huffington Post. With an international perspective, my blog's purpose is to share my maverick views of this business I've spent the last half-century working in, enjoying and observing.

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