WPP: World's largest advertising company accused of 'whitewashing' Egypt's human rights record

Exclusive: Firm described how it organised conference which distracted media from reporting 'negative' news

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The Independent Online

The world’s largest advertising company has been accused of “whitewashing” Egypt’s record on human rights after describing how it organised a major economics conference which distracted the global media from reporting “negative” news about the country.

WPP, the UK-based multinational communications firm founded by Sir Martin Sorrell, played a key role in the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC), which was attended by 30 heads of state and featured addresses from high profile speakers including Tony Blair.

According to a “case study” document published on WPP’s website, the conference resulted in the successful “rebranding” of Egypt and built confidence in the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who rose to power following the army’s overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Almost 600 people have been sentenced to death in Egypt since the beginning of last year, with the vast majority of cases involving those who attended pro-democracy protests. The country has also seen a disturbing rise in the number of executions and use of mass trials under the al-Sisi regime, according to research by the human rights group Reprieve.

“After four years of turmoil and political transition, Egypt’s country brand needed to be re-launched and repositioned globally,” says the document produced by WPP. The firm gave four affiliate companies the job of organising and advertising the conference, held in the resort of Sharm El-Sheikh last March.

Under a list of points which it says are “a testament to the success of the campaign”, the document describes how the media spotlight – which had previously been focused on Egypt’s clampdown on dissent – was repositioned. “The proportion of negative non-economic news trended downward in the build-up to the EEDC as more media focus was put on economic issues, rebalancing the media narrative around Egypt which was heavily skewed to political issues at the outset of the programme,” it says.

According to WPP, the conference became a platform to highlight the “extensive reforms” of Mr al-Sisi’s government. One of the star turns was Mr Blair, who had been acting as an unpaid adviser to the regime on economic reforms. “I think for the first time…in my memory you have a leadership in Egypt that understands the modern world,” he told the audience.

According to Reprieve’s research, Egypt’s current regime has executed at least 27 people since the start of 2014, compared with just one execution carried out between 2011 and 2013. At least 15 mass trials have also taken place since March last year, where tens or sometimes hundreds of co-defendants are tried on almost identical charges.

WPP’s report on Egypt

  • “After four years of turmoil… Egypt’s country brand needed to be relaunched. The ‘Egypt the Future’ campaign for the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) re-established Egypt as a destination for foreign direct investment and affirmed its role as a trusted partner on the international stage.”
  • “Working with our combined networks in government, business and the media, Team Egypt secured leading global figures, as well as media and knowledge partners, to participate at EEDC. The EEDC itself became the platform to highlight the extensive reforms the government has already implemented.”
  • “The campaign resulted in 97,200 articles published globally and [rebalanced] the media narrative [on] Egypt.”
  • “The proportion of negative non-economic news trended downward in the build-up to the EEDC as more media focus was put on economic issues, rebalancing [a narrative] heavily skewed to political issues at the outset of the programme.”

“WPP’s own comments suggest that they have worked to distract attention from the ‘political’ agenda in Egypt – which in recent years has been dominated by a brutal crackdown on dissent, and the handing down of hundreds of death sentences to protesters and political opponents,” said Donald Campbell, head of communications at the human rights group.

“There is of course a legitimate role for firms to play in encouraging business with Egypt, but that should not come at the price of whitewashing the country’s appalling human rights record.”

He also pointed out that Sir Martin is chair of the private sector board of the GREAT Britain campaign, which promotes the UK as a destination for tourists, trade and investment on behalf of the UK Government. “We hope that Sir Martin will make clear that he views the Egyptian government’s brutal treatment of political opponents and those caught up in protests as completely unacceptable,” Mr Campbell said.

A spokesman for WPP said: “The aim of the conference was to promote Egypt’s economic development by attracting foreign investment, an essential ingredient for the country’s wider development and stability. It was attended by international leaders including 30 heads of State, the US Secretary of State, the UK Foreign Secretary, the Vice Chancellor of Germany and the Managing Director of the IMF.

“The event was open to the media, attended by more than 1,000 journalists and widely covered from all perspectives. It is inevitable in the run-up to a major international economic conference that there will be greater media focus on economic issues.”