By Janine Lazarus
Let’s call it like it is for once, shall we? No tiresome beating around the bush.
Governments generally don’t want you to know that they have Big Boy public relations machinery working for them. Bell Pottinger is one repugnant South African case in point.
So while major media outlets in Saudi Arabia cast the disappearance and murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a foreign conspiracy to denigrate the image of the kingdom, I’d have to grudgingly concur with American President Captain Orange when he described this Saudi public relations debacle as “the worst in the history of cover-ups.”
And let me hasten to add that I’m loathe to sing off the same hymn sheet as Trump. But he’s surprisingly on the button on this one. This is nothing more or less than the public relations fiasco of all fiascos.
Since the 59-year-old journalist walked into a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, hoping for a permit to marry the love of his life, never to be seen again, his disappearance has been characterised by fake news, unnamed sources, fabrication and blatant bias.
When the murder was so clear, why were so many inconsistent statements made? Why, for weeks afterwards, was Khashoggi’s dismembered body nowhere to be found?
And to add further insult to injury, media accounts disseminating from outlets run with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, took it a step too far: They even tried spinning the news coverage of the journalist’s disappearance as a plot by rival governments and political groups to hurt the kingdom.
Let’s face facts: It’s an open secret that the Saudi government pays millions of dollars to American PR firms to burnish its image to a high gloss via the news media to global policy makers and the public.
And it’s not just the Saudis who want to have a good image. Every country does.
But what must be asked is if any amount of money could protect Saudi Arabia’s hell-bent attempt at image-building? I’d argue – hotly, I might add – not. I doubt there’s enough dosh in the world that could find its way round even attempting to justify this country’s massive reputational hit.
Like many other consultants, I’m self-employed. Turning down work is not something I make a habit of. I work with governments and corporates increasingly in the Media Advisory space on some seriously sticky issues. But I’ve learned the hard way that the smelly brown stuff sticks.
To be asked – even for bucket loads of bucks – to work on the image of one of the world’s most autocratic regimes and human rights abusers, is something anyone with a smidgeon of integrity would flatly turn down.
It serves no purpose for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to project an image of a ‘softer’ Saudi. There’s nothing soft about cracking down on dissent, of dropping bombs on Yemen, of throwing human rights bloggers behind bars, or of ordering – even at ‘arm’s length’ – the grisly murder of a journalist.
While the Saudi government reels – and deservedly so – from ever more vitriolic backlash over the murder of one of the most influential Arab journalists in the world, to my mind what needs to be put into place is some serious action on the ground. It’s the only way to win the hearts and minds of the global village.
Clean up your own backyard before you go outside and play in the traffic. Action always speaks louder than words – even words that are spun to absolute perfection.
And talking about words, Khashoggi wasn’t one to mince his. He was more often than not harshly critical of the Saudi regime. It’s taken his murder to make the world wake up to Saudi brutality.
Perhaps this is his final legacy. Unspoken but overwhelmingly powerful.
Sometimes no words are necessary.