Comment: Open letter to Ruder Finn

The following open letter was sent by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Eva Abdulla, also a member of the IPU’s Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians, to Emmanuel Tchividjian, Senior Vice President and Ethics Officer at US public relations firm Ruder Finn. The company recently won a three-month contract to represent the Maldivian government.

Dear Mr Tchividjian,

On 7th February 2012, elements of the police and army loyal to the former autocratic leader of the Maldives, Mr. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, threatened the democratically-elected President of the country, H.E. Mr. Mohamed Nasheed, his family and his supporters with physical harm unless he resigned by a certain time that day. Those elements of the police and army then escorted President Nasheed to the President’s Office and stood over him as he wrote a ‘resignation’ letter, while others forcibly took control of the country’s main television station. A new Government has since been constituted, dominated by allies of former President Gayoom – even though the country clearly rejected him and his thirty-year dictatorship through the ballot box in the 2008 presidential election.

As a member of the governing council and the Women’s Wing of the Maldivian Democratic Party, and an elected representative, I am therefore writing to express our surprise and disappointment that Ruder Finn decided to tender for and sign a contract with this clearly undemocratic and illegitimate government, a contract under which you will be asked to act as public apologist and public advocate.

We note that you claim to be Ruder Finn’s ‘Ethics’ Officer and that you once argued in an interview that “ethics is essentially an issue of values”. We put it to you however that both you and Ruder Finn, by accepting this contract, have demonstrated a complete lack of both values and ethics.

You justify your decision on ‘ethical’ grounds by saying that you have studied the “complex political situation” and have concluded that the current government is legitimate according to the country’s constitution but that if the National Commission of Inquiry determines that the government came to power illegally you will resign the contract. This position is so riddled with contradictions that it is difficult not to conclude that your ‘ethical’ analysis is nothing more than a fig leaf disguising a policy of ‘profit-at-any-cost’.

How can Ruder Finn have determined that the government is constitutional and legitimate when the national mechanism established to answer that very question, the NCI, has not yet presented its findings? Do you have the power of foresight?

Having already prejudged the conclusions of the NCI, you then claim Ruder Finn will resign the contract if the NCI demonstrates foul play. And yet if you had indeed “closely examined” the complex situation you would know that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the Maldives’ largest political party – the MDP, and the country’s civil society have all stated that the NCI, chaired by President Gayoom’s former Minister of Defence, is neither independent nor credible.

Also in interview, you have argued that “the starting point of using one’s values to make an ethical choice is, one would presume, to have a clear and accurate understanding of the facts”. If this is the case, one wonders which facts you are basing your ethical choices on. You are the only organisation outside the Maldives, which has already decided that the current government is legitimate. Both the Commonwealth and the European Union, the two organisations most closely following events in the Maldives have both said the opposite – that there are clear questions marks over the legitimacy of this government and it can only demonstrate its legitimacy through an independent and impartial national commission of inquiry, and through early elections. Does Ruder Finn have a political analysis capability greater than that of the Commonwealth and the EU?

Which brings me to perhaps the most damning indictment of your company and your claim to conduct “ethical public relations” – that in your public statements on this issue you have knowingly issued untruths and sought to mislead. You claim in your interview with the Holmes Report on 27th April that “accusations of a coup have been dismissed from many international organizations and governments, including the United Kingdom government who has said that they do not recognize the transfer of power in the Maldives to be a coup”. Yet this is a clear misrepresentation of the position of the UK and the European Union, both of which have consistently made clear that there are serious questions about the legitimacy of this government and thus (taken from a Declaration by Baroness Catherine Ashton on behalf of the European Union on 22nd February 2012 ): “The EU is of the view that the legitimacy and legality of the transfer of presidential power in the Maldives should be determined by an impartial, independent investigation as agreed by all parties in the Maldives”. Both the EU and the Commonwealth – which is working in close cooperation with the United Nations on this issue – have also clearly said that in the medium-term legitimacy can only be conferred through a popular vote expressed through early elections in 2012.

Thus one can only conclude that, if ethical public relations is indeed a case of having a clear and accurate understanding of the facts, and then applying one’s values, it would seem that Ruder Finn practices a deeply unethical form of public relations because you lack a clear grasp of the facts, and, it would seem, have no values beyond a wish to make money.

On this point, it has been reported that your contract with the current government is worth almost $150,000 a month ($1,800,000 or Maldivian Rufiyaa 28 million annually). To provide you with some “clear and accurate facts.” If in the Maldives:

  • N. Milandhoo sewerage project = 29.9 million MRF
  • N. Magoodhoo harbour project = 18.8 million MRF
  • One government built housing unit in Ga. Kolamaafushi = 1 million MRF
  • Aasandha health insurance premium per person = 2650 MRF

The Ruder Finn contract, per annum, with the current Maldivian regime is then equivalent to:

  • A sewerage project
  • A harbour project
  • 28 government built housing units,
  • Aasandha health insurance premium for 10,473 citizens (the same health insurance scheme the current regime has announced scaling back, claiming lack of funds).

I invite you to apply your ‘values’ to these facts and to reach an ‘ethical’ conclusion.

Finally, I would like to remind you that while you are fortunate, in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to enjoy stable democracies which allow for the full enjoyment of human rights, with those rights come certain duties and responsibilities. Among those duties, I would hope, is to use your freedoms to promote the rights of other people in other countries and not knowingly work towards the suppression of those rights. President Gayoom presided over extrajudicial killings in our jails, and over hundreds of documented cases of torture. Since the overthrow of President Nasheed, cases of Police brutality have again begun to resurface – including against Members of Parliament (cases have been lodged with the Inter-Parliamentary Union), as have cases of State-sponsored sexual and gender-based violence against women, arbitrary detention and police brutality. Ruder Finn has now unwittingly made itself a vehicle through which he and his associates are defying the democratic right of people in the Maldives to choose their government and are instead reasserting the old autocracy.

If you continue down this path, then you will be party to one of the greatest injustices ever inflicted on the people of the Maldives. It is difficult to understand how Ruder Finn or you personally would be able to call such a choice “ethical”. We also wonder whether your corporate clients, such as Israeli Airline El Al (which Members of Parliament of the current regime voted to ban from landing in the Maldives) Reuters, Acca, Lexus, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Ricoh, Michelin, Four Seasons, Johnson & Johnson, Manpower, would be able to understand.

Yours sincerely,

Eva Abdulla

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MMPRC confirms appointment of Ruder Finn for international PR

The Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) has confirmed its appointment of New-York based public relations agency Ruder Finn, following speculation in the PR industry press last week.

Ruder Finn will provide international PR in a three-month contract PR Week speculated to be worth over US$150,000 per month.

According a statement from the MMPRC, the agency will “oversee the overall media coordination and achievement of PR related solution for destination Maldives, instil confidence in the tourism industry of the Maldives, gain understanding and public acknowledgement of the Maldives in the international community, ensure sustainable development of the tourism industry, and improve the image of the destination.”

President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s spokesperson, Abbas Adil Riza, told Minivan News last week that the appointed PR firm would only be responsible for promoting tourism, and would not be involved in politics or government.

Ruder Finn’s Senior Vice President and Ethics Officer, Emmanuel Tchividjian, told PR industry publication The Holmes Report that the company would “resign its lucrative new Maldives’ tourism brief if a national enquiry finds that the country’s new government took power illegally.”

Tchividjian claimed the company had “closely examined the complexity of the current political situation in the country”.

“Accusations of a coup have been dismissed by many international organisations and governments, including the United Kingdom government who has said that they do not recognise the transfer of power in the Maldives to be a coup,” he claimed.

“We were encouraged by the desire of the current government, in place according to the country’s constitution, to focus on ensuring stability, democracy and transparency in the Maldives, including a free press.”

Ruder Finn’s resignation of an account under such circumstance is not without precedent.

The firm’s founder David Finn, cited on the website of the American Jewish Committee, a think tank and advocacy organisation “combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry” and “supporting Israel’s quest for peace and security”, recounts how  “some years ago a professor at the Seminary helped us make the decision to resign the sizeable Greek tourism account after three colonels seized power and installed a military dictatorship. “

The company nonetheless has a reputation for representing controversial clients, including tobacco giant Phillip Morris and Israeli airline El Al, which MPs of the Maldives government coalition last week voted to ban from landing in the Maldives.

The PR firm was also embroiled in controversy over its distribution of the incendiary film ‘Fitna’, produced by Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, at a conference organised by Ruder Finn in 2008 called ‘Facing Jihad’.

The MMPRC has also appointed several other agencies to target specific markets, including Rooster PR (UK), Belcanto Communications (Germany) and Travel Link Marketing (China).

The MMPRC said it was also in the process of appointing PR agencies in India, Russia and the Middle East.


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.