Three days after protests began, the Government of Bahrain contracted the Potomac Square Group lobbying firm to provide “advice on dealing with reporters and public officials...in an effort to explain various positions held by the government of Bahrain” for a $20,000 monthly fee.
In the months after, the Bahraini government signed contracts with a full bench of lobbyists to “communicate the positive work the government is undertaking,” including Joe Trippi & Associates; Sanitas International; Qorvis Communications; Sorini, Samet, & Associates; Gardant Communications; and TS Navigations.
When asked how much money the Bahraini government is spending on lobbying, the media attaché for Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority Saqer al-Khalifa told a crowd at American University, “I have no idea.” In reality, his name and title appear on at least two contracts, with Sanitas International and Joe Trippi, pledging to provide “communications services for the purpose of supporting the needs of the government of the Kingdom of Bahrain.”
Meanwhile, Qorvis rakes in $40,000 a month to “provide press and public relations services”, while Sorini, Samet & Associates grabbed $25,000 upon signing and charge $100-550 an hour to assist with the Government of Bahrain’s response to “specific alleged labor rights and related human rights violations.” Matt Lauer, a partner at Qorvis, relayed in an August email to PR Newser that “We help communicate the positive work the government is undertaking.”
With more than half a dozen firms tailoring Bahrain’s PR jacket, it begs the question as to why a single firm has not permanently terminated their relationship with the Bahraini regime in light of abuses confirmed by the BICI report. Only one UK-based firm, Bell-Pottinger, suspended its contract in early April in response to the government-led crackdown. But even this firm balked at shelving their contract after seven protesters were killed in late February, citing their work focused primarily on economic issues and had “nothing to do with Sunnis and Shiites.”
In Tunisia, when reports of a government crackdown surfaced, the Washington Media Group terminated its $420,000 image-building contract on January 6. Gregory L. Vistica, the firm’s president, told the New York Times: “We basically decided on principle that we couldn’t work for a country that was using snipers on rooftops to pick off its citizens.” Similarly in Libya, the Monitor Company Group terminated its long-standing contract with ousted autocrat Muammar Gadhafi in July and issued an apology. Firms representing Bahrain have yet to take the same principled stance.
Meanwhile, others masquerading as journalists or independent observers have been writing glowingly of Bahrain. For example, Tom Squitieri, a former USA Today journalist, who founded TS Navigations to specialize in “perceptive writing, engaging research and investigations, deft media training, and commanding crisis communications.” However, the tagline at the end of his pieces states explicitly that Squitieri is “working with the Bahrain government on media awareness,” as verified by his contract with Bahrain.
Likewise, an article from Rob Sobhani claims that an “Islamic Republic of Bahrain” is imminent and demands that Obama create a “Marshall Plan” for the country. As luck would have it, Sobhani is the CEO of the Caspian Group, a company participating in “complex negotiations worth billions of dollars…lobbying the U.S. government” to assist multinational corporations’ work in Bahrain.
To justify Bahrain’s lobbying, Saqer al-Khalifa said, “Some [people] in the South used to think that Bahrain was one of the fifty states of America.” But the lobbyists aren’t just pointing to Bahrain on a map, the hired hands of Bahrain’s government are desperately playing a smoke and mirrors game to stave off the need for real reform.
Rather than devoting energy to rebuilding its image, the government should be working harder to implement tangible reform. That would surely give the PR firms some good news to spread.
Cole Bockenfeld is the Director of Advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.