Maldives government selects Ruder Finn for “controversial” brief: PR Week

The Maldives’ government has appointed US-based public relations agency Ruder Finn in a deal worth upwards of US$150,000 a month, reports public relations industry magazine PR Week.

However Deputy Minister of Tourism Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News that the government was still evaluating the bids.

“I can’t disclose the costs or names, but we are evaluating three companies: one in India, one in China, and another in America,” Maleeh said.

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

Tthe request for proposals (RFP) document issued by the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) on April 9 states that 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.”

Speaking to PR Week, Ruder Finn’s Senior Vice-President and Ethics Officer Emmanuel Tchividjian defended company’s decision to take on the contract.

“We believe Ruder Finn can contribute positively to the people of the Maldives, a country that depends on tourism for the bulk of its economy,” Tchividjian stated.

“Prior to deciding to pursue the tender, we closely examined the complexity of the current political situation in the country. 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,” he said, but acknowledged “diverse points of view” surrounding the change of government on February 7.

The 50,000 member-strong Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which was ousted from power on February 7 following what then President Mohamed Nasheed described as a coup d’état planned by the opposition, sponsored by wealthy resort tycoons and carried out by a mutinous police and military, continues to maintain that the new President’s government is illegitimate and a return to the autocratic era of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

David Hardingham, founder of the UK-based Friends of Maldives (FOM) NGO that has issued a travel advisory against several resorts owned by those by the MDP accused of involvement in the coup, suggested to PR Week that Ruder Finn should “tear up the contract, and think twice in the future about with whom it does business.”

“Clearly our hope was that no responsible PR firm would shake hands with a dictatorship that toppled a democratically elected leader at gunpoint,” the FOM founder told the PR industry trade magazine.

“We can only ask ourselves: is a company with offices in seven countries and a long list of respectable clients really so desperate for the money? Because this kind of work does nothing for its reputation,” he added.

Controversial clients

Ruder Finn is no stranger to controversial clients. Up until the late 90s the company was instrumental in crafting an infamous campaign for US cigarette giant Phillip Morris disputing evidence that smoking was harmful to public health.

According to Sourcewatch, in 2004 the Ruder Finn was appointed to promote Israeli national carrier El Al, while in 2008 the company’s Israel branch represented a “Facing Jihad” conference, “a summit of European lawmakers who are united in their shared belief that Islam today poses a serious threat to Western civilization.”

PR in the Maldives

Other foreign PR companies that have been active in the Maldives have included the Campaign Palace, a London-based group engaged by former President Gayoom to develop his Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), and New York-headquartered Hill & Knowlton (H&K), which 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 2003 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.

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 and an end to the practice of flogging.