Edelman has a history of work in and with Saudi Arabia, including a campaign to promote the professional networking company LinkedIn as a “platform that amplified the voices of Saudi career women.” In 2020, Edelman registered with the DOJ to represent the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a company producing chemicals and other materials that is majority owned by the Saudi government, in a deal that was worth roughly $6.7 million. It has also done public relations work for NEOM Company, which is developing the new Saudi “smart city.”
But the current contract could be one of the most lucrative among its partnerships with the kingdom in recent years, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings. Edelman, an agency under Daniel J. Edelman Holdings known as United Entertainment Group, broke down the costs for the contract into four categories: research, planning and strategy; media relations and strategic partnerships; social media plan development and outreach; and client management and reporting. Within those categories, Edelman promised to, among other things, “monitor online conversations and media coverage to identify ‘friends’ and detractors,” “Commence a relationship building programme of US based media contacts,” and host “Monthly Client Meetings.”
It’s not uncommon for firms to help connect influencers and foreign governments. Lawyer and P.R. professional Lanny Davis recalled one foreign government asking for the Clinton White House alum to connect it 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 kinds of partnerships between governments and celebrities are becoming more and more frequent.
“You can’t ignore the money,” Lanza said. “Celebrities will make more money pitching a foreign government than making a film these days.”
Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that this was far from the first time the kingdom has used pop culture for public relations. He pointed to the crown prince’s facetime with Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on a visit to the United States years ago.
“It’s the next step in their reputational laundering campaign, and whether it’s through sports or whether it’s through Hollywood connection — you name it — this is something they’ve been trying to do for years,” Freeman said. “I think that this lobbying campaign … is a big part of the reason why Biden was able to do this trip, why this was at all possible. It’s because of places like Edelman and the other folks working for the Saudis.”
The contract that Edelman signed with the Saudi government underscores the changing attitudes of U.S. companies towards the middle east nation. In Washington, some who once balked at working with the kingdom have steadily dropped their objections.
The lobbying and communications shop BGR dropped Saudi Arabia in 2018. But in May, the firm finalized a deal to represent the non-governmental Islamic organization Muslim World League, to which the kingdom is “the leading contributing member.” A number of other firms have also inked contracts with Saudi Arabia since a K Street exodus in 2018 after the Khashoggi murder. Earlier this month, Edelman also filed paperwork with the Department of Justice, which is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, 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 firm changed its position, Jeff Birnbaum, a BGR spokesperson, said the Muslim World League was an NGO and not part of the Saudi government, adding that “[i]t has long been an advocate for religious tolerance and an opponent of religious extremism.” He added that the firm’s hiring was not related to Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
Edelman’s proposed “Search Beyond” campaign provides a window into how mega PR firms believe controversial clients can ingratiate themselves with modern media consumers. In the pitch to the Saudi Ministry of Culture, the company touts the success of a campaign that its United Entertainment Group spearheaded for the Empire State building, pointing to its ability to recruit celebrities like Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner and David Beckham to help “transform the most famous building in the world into a material for cultural dialogue all over the world.”
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