The Daily Show meets Riyadh! How a giant public relations firm pitches the Saudis.
Edelman has a history of working in and with Saudi Arabia, including a campaign to promote the professional networking company LinkedIn as a “platform that has amplified the voices of Saudi career women”. In 2020, Edelman registered with the DOJ to represent Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a company producing chemicals and other materials majority-owned by the Saudi government, in a deal worth approximately $6.7 million. He has also done public relations work for the NEOM company, which is developing the new Saudi “smart city”.
But the current contract could be one of the most lucrative among his partnerships with the kingdom in recent years, according to documents filed by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Edelman, an agency under Daniel J. Edelman Holdings known as United Entertainment Group, broke down contract costs into four categories: research, planning, and strategy; media relations and strategic partnerships; development and dissemination of a social media plan; and client management and reporting. In these categories, Edelman promised, among other things, to “monitor online conversations and media coverage to identify ‘friends’ and critics”, “begin a contact-building program with state-based media States” and organize “Monthly meetings with customers”.
It’s not uncommon for companies to help connect influencers and foreign governments. Lawyer and public relations professional Lanny Davis recalled that a foreign government asked the Clinton White House veteran to put him in touch with his friend and actor, Rob Reiner, who also had ties to Hillary. Clinton. Bryan Lanza, a partner at Mercury and former communications director for President Donald Trump’s transition team, said these types of government-celebrity partnerships are becoming more common.
“You can’t ignore money,” Lanza said. “These days, celebrities will make more money presenting a foreign government than directing a movie.”
Ben Freeman, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that this was far from the first time the kingdom had used pop culture for public relations. He pointed the finger at the crown prince face time with Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson during a visit to the United States years ago.
“It’s the next step in their reputation laundering campaign, and whether it’s through sports or connecting to Hollywood – you name it – it’s something they’ve been trying to do for years,” Freeman said. “I think that lobbying campaign … is a big part of why Biden was able to go on this trip, why it was possible at all. It’s because of places like Edelman and other people who work for the Saudis.
The contract Edelman signed with the Saudi government underscores the changing attitude of American companies toward the Middle Eastern nation. In Washington, some who were once reluctant to work with the kingdom have gradually let go of their objections.
Lobbying and communications boutique BGR dropped out of Saudi Arabia in 2018. But in May the company finalized a deal to represent the Islamic non-governmental organization Muslim World League, of which the kingdom is “the largest contributing member”. A number of other companies have also signed contracts with Saudi Arabia since an exodus from K Street in 2018 following Khashoggi’s murder. Earlier this month, Edelman also filed documents with the Justice Ministry, which is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Law, to conduct public relations for a Riyadh-based advertising company working for the Saudi Data Artificial Intelligence Agency. The roughly three-month contract is worth 779,973 riyals, or about $208,000.
When asked why the company changed its position, Jeff Birnbaum, a spokesperson for BGR, said the Muslim World League was an NGO and not part of the Saudi government, adding that “[i]t has long been an advocate of religious tolerance and an opponent of religious extremism. He added that the company’s hiring was unrelated to Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
Edelman’s proposed “Search Beyond” campaign opens a window into how big PR firms believe controversial clients can ingratiate themselves to modern media consumers. In the speech to the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the company touts the success of a campaign its United Entertainment Group ran for the Empire State Building, highlighting its ability to recruit celebrities like Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner and David Beckham for help “transform the most famous building in the world into a material for cultural dialogue around the world.