Questions for PR giant over Saudi government work

By agency reporter
March 21, 2016

One of the world’s largest PR and advertising firms is facing questions over the work it has carried out on behalf of the Saudi Government, amid concerns that the Kingdom may be planning to execute more people sentenced to death as children for attending protests.

Publicis Groupe, which is headquartered in France and has significant operations in the US and UK, has worked – through its subsidiary Qorvis – to promote "reforms" in the Kingdom, and defend its use of the "ultimate penalties" against "extremists". The Saudi Government frequently accuses those who have protested peacefully for reform in Saudi Arabia of being ‘extremists.’

While the full scope of Qorvis’ work is unclear, pages on its website stated that it included “media relations…government relations [and] grassroots action” and “highlighting Saudi Arabia’s areas of partnership with the US.” The web pages were cited in a letter sent to Publicis by the international human rights NGO Reprieve in February, but appear to have since been deleted.

Reprieve’s letter to Publicis Groupe, which acquired 100 per cent of Qorvis in January 2014, asked the firm whether it believed its work on behalf of the Saudi authorities was compatible with Publicis’ human rights principles, as set out on its website. In response, a letter from Publicis’ general counsel stated that “it is our policy not to publicly comment on work we perform for our clients, except to the extent the law requires us to do so.”

Since the letter was sent, a number of pages on Qorvis’ website setting out the work it undertakes on behalf of the Saudi Government appear to have become unavailable, although they remain accessible via cached versions stored by Google.

The news comes amid fears that three juveniles who were sentenced to death for attending protests – Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher – could soon be executed. Reports last week in government-affliated Saudi media suggested the authorities were planning to ‘complete’ a recent mass execution, by killing four more prisoners.

Recent research by Reprieve has found that, of those facing execution in Saudi Arabia, some 72 per cent were convicted of non-violent offences, including drug offences and political protest.

Donald Campbell, Director of Communications at Reprieve, said: “It is hard to square Publicis’ claim that it is committed to human rights principles with its work for the Saudi Arabian Government. The Saudi authorities have a record of torturing and executing those that attend political protests – even children.  Yet one of Publicis’ subsidiary companies is helping to defend the country’s supposed ‘reforms’ in the media – as well as the Saudi Government’s use of ‘the ultimate penalties’ against those convicted in its deeply unfair courts. Publicis must carry out a comprehensive review of whether its work for the Saudi Government is compatible with its publicly-stated human rights principles.”

* Reprieve’s letter to Publicis Groupe is available here, and Publicis’ reply is here.

* Reprieve http://www.reprieve.org.uk/

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