Arun Sudhaman 31 Mar 2010 // 4:04PM GMT
Last year, corporate/public affairs heavyweight Apco Worldwide scaled back its Indonesian presence in favour of a new office in Malaysia. At the time, Apco ducked the question of whether it was exiting Indonesia, as demonstrated in this article by Anita Davis at Media Asia. Either way, it is unlikely the agency expected tougher political conditions in Malaysia. If it did, then those hopes have been well and truly dashed. Apco has now found itself at the centre of an explosive political confrontation, the likes of which should serve as a salutary lesson for any agency taking on government advocacy work in Asia. Apco entered Malaysia following a pitch for a lucrative account to boost the Government's reputation and help it connect with citizens online. Apco landed this business, along with a brief to handle strategic comms for the Government in Europe, North America and Africa. Fast forward eight months and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is raising hell, claiming that Apco played a central role in the formation of the Goverment's 1Malaysia concept. Critically, Anwar is claiming that Apco previously created a similar concept for Israel - a flammable allegation in Muslim Malaysia. Both the Malaysian Government and Apco have denied the claims. In statements, Apco has said that 1Malaysia was created prior to Apco's appointment. About Israel, Apco says:
"It is also incorrect that APCO represented the Government of Israel or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as has been alleged in Malaysia's Parliament. At no time has APCO been involved with a public relations campaign relating to a "One-Israel" concept. The statement in Malaysia's Parliament that APCO was involved in such a campaign is false."Anwar has responded by claiming that Apco was already present in Malaysia for six months prior to the 1Malaysia launch through a company called Mind Teams. He has urged the Government to cancel its contract with Apco:
"Apco’s role of advising on strategic communication on a comprehensive basis would entail involvement of the Prime Minister’s Department, Home Ministry, Information Ministry and other related ministries. It encompasses a vast network of the nation’s crucial and strategic operations which will have a bearing on the nation’s security."The use of a PR agency to work on external Government campaigns is hardly, on its own, controversial. Malaysiakini's useful roundup of comments on the issue illustrates that it is the Israel link which is proving particularly potent. Anwar, like any good politician perhaps, has skilfully intertwined separate claims to create a narrative that has forced Apco onto the defensive. Further investigation by the Straits Times reveals that Apco did, in fact, work for Israel in the 90s. A tad disingenuously, the agency has said that this work occurred while it was under the ownership of Grey Global Group, with which it has since cut ties. Apco now finds itself embroiled in its own PR nightmare in Malaysia, with the agency effectively becoming a political football in the fierce battle between the country's Government and the Anwar-helmed opposition. It is hard not to feel a measure of sympathy for the agency. After all, it appears to have done little wrong here, other than work for Israel. Which, to put it plainly, is not a crime. Still, the scenario serves as a timely reminder of the risks of government advocacy, in a febrile environment where social media and politics can combine to spectacular effect. When Apco won this business, its Asia CEO Larry Snoddon pointed out that the assignment illustrated the changing dynamics of public affairs in Asia. Strategic government work, rather than the usual corporate projects. With that change, though, comes some interesting consequences, as Apco would undoubtedly attest to now.