Government seeking international PR firm to counter negative publicity, “rally alliance of support”

Additional reporting by Neil Merrett and Zaheena Rasheed.

The new Maldivian government is in the process of recruiting an international public relations firm to counter negative publicity and “gain understanding and public acknowledgement of the Maldives from the international community.”

Minivan News obtained a request for proposals (RFP) document issued by the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) on April 9, outlining the government’s media strategy and seeking a company to provide “strategic counsel”, “stakeholder engagement”, “proactive” media relations and “key message and storybook development”.

Objectives for the three month contract, bids for which close on April 14, include boosting tourism confidence, improving the image of the Maldives, and demonstrating the government’s “commitment to strengthening democracy and sustainable development”.

The successful agency will be required to target stakeholders in the UK, USA, Commonwealth countries, “all relevant EU institutions”, academic institutions and NGOs, “arrange 1:1 meetings with influential and open minded potential champions”, and “arrange briefings to build links at various levels with the UK, US, Commonwealth and major European governments.”

The agency will “feed in academic arguments to those identified”, and “determine champions who are willing to speak publicly on Maldives”, in a bid to “Rally an alliance of support for the Maldives”.

Locally, the chosen company will be required to “assist with the roll out of policy and other announcements to media, parliamentarians,government, NGOs and others.”

The successful bidder will be required to develop “key messages, including facts and proof points” concerning “events surrounding the recent incidents in Maldives”, pushing the “core platforms of democracy and sustainable development.”

The MMPRC will task the agency to “Begin the process of developing relationships with key journalists who are friendly and receptive”, and “Provide avenues for proactively seeding positive stories”.

“One to two high profile, credible and friendly” journalists would be targeted for “1:1 relationships”, while a press trip of 3-5 reporters would be arranged before June.

The agency should furthermore “Ensure inaccuracies in coverage are corrected immediately to avoid pick-up and further dissemination” and “help provide balance to negative stories”.

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s Spokesperson, Abbas Adil Riza, said he was unaware the government was seeking to retain an international PR firm.

“I think it’s a good idea if we lack capacity to do it in the country,” he suggested.

Negative media coverage was “tarnishing the image of the Maldives”, Riza said, “because the former President [Mohamed Nasheed] is not getting what he wants.”

Such an agency should “lobby the press, make sure they report what actually happened,” Riza recommended.

“The MDP burned down buildings in acts of terrorism. We must expose the MDP for what it is. It is not democratic,” he said.

Deputy Minister of Tourism, Mohamed Maleeh Jamal, said the MMPRC had been recruiting PR agents in several countries, including Germany and the UK.

“The main focus right now is increasing investor confidence. We have to include all fronts include economic angles,” he said. “There has been a barrage of international media coverage and we need to try to convert this interest into positive coverage.”

Negative media coverage of Maldivian political strife had particularly impacted emerging markets, Jamal said. “We’ve a trend of delayed bookings from China, the Middle East and Africa – emerging markets,” he said, adding that traditional markets, such as Germany and France, had been largely unaffected.

Jamal said he was unaware of the responses to the April 9 RFP: “That’s at a technical level. I’m not involved.”

Public relations in the Maldives

Politicians in the opposition parties under Nasheed’s government, including Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) leader Dr Hassan Saeed (now advisor to the President), have previously used the London-based Campaign Company.

Chief Executive of the Campaign Company, Graeme Wilson, told Minivan News this week that “We have no relationship with the Maldivian government”.

According to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, founder of the Campaign Company, Jonathan Upton, visited the Maldives in 2011 and recommended that leader of the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, sideline the former President- then the DRP’s ‘Honorary Leader’.

“[Upton] did not have any idea of the views of the Maldivian people and the political situation of the Maldives. His recommendation to keep me aside, without knowing the support of the majority of the Maldivian people as they have seen the development and changes during my presidency, was not a politically mature recommendation,” Gayoom wrote, in a 12 page open-letter published in March 2011 outlining Thasmeen’s alleged leadership failings.

“You are showing characteristics that cannot be prevented after being deceived by the words of people who are unaware of the political scenario of this country,” Gayoom wrote.

The Campaign Company had been engaged by Gayoom “to build his party and advise on how to manage and develop the DRP”, foreign minister under Gayoom and Nasheed, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, told Minivan News in June 2011.

In 2010, Dr Hassan Saeed used the Campaign Company during a PR tour of UK to meet MPs and journalists, representing the opposition coalition.

During the visit, Minivan News obtained an email exchange with a lobbyist then contracted by the Campaign Company, Peter Craske, soliciting a meeting between the recipient and the DQP, “which is formed of an alliance between the DRP and MDP parties”. Craske subsequently apologised for the error, and noted that the email did not result in any meetings.

Hill & Knowlton leads Maldives’ democratic reform

Another PR firm, New York-headquartered Hill & Knowlton (H&K), was commissioned by Gayoom in 2003 and subsequently recommended – and in some cases implemented – most of the pre-2008 democratic reform in the Maldives.

H&K’s report on the Maldives, titled ‘Issues audit and communications strategy for the Government of the Maldives’, revealed that the firm was responsible for much of the human rights and governance reform that paved the way for the country’s first democratic election in 2008.

The vast majority of recommendations in the report were subsequently implemented, portraying Gayoom as mellowing in the lead up to 2008 following the autocratic excesses of his 30 year rule.

H&K’s recommendations included the separation of the security forces into police, military and correctional institutions, constitutional reform and the introduction of multi-party democracy, strategies for the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), reform of the Majlis, reform of the criminal justice system, including an end to the practice of flogging, and even the introduction of religious freedom.

“Expectations have now been raised and presidential promises made; the delivery of meaningful reform is now required,” H&K said in 2003.