Burson-Marsteller Draws Ire for Working With Islamist Political Party

Downplays report of refusal to work with Israel

One of the world’s largest public relations companies has become embroiled in a controversy surrounding its representation of a Tunisian Islamist political party and is downplaying a report that it refused to work with Israel.

No stranger to taking on controversial clients, American-based Burson-Marsteller is representing Tunisia’s Ennahda Party to improve its image abroad, according to the New York Observer.

The Ennahda Party formed a coalition government in Tunisia during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The Party recently handed over the reins of power to a caretaker government after reportedly coming under pressure for failing to stop terrorism and keep the economy on an even keel. Burson-Marsteller is reportedly going to help the once-outlawed group with stakeholder and media engagement.

The Jerusalem Post reports that the Tunisian group was behind terror attacks against tourist hotels in the 1980s while one of the group’s leaders called for the destruction of Israel.

The same year that Ennahda came to power, the head of Burson-Marsteller’s Norwegian office was asked about the possibility of working on an image campaign for Israel. At the time he was quoted as saying, “If we accept this project, this will create a great amount of negative reactions…Israel is a particularly controversial project.”

While the Observer and other publications have since ripped the agency, Burson-Marsteller reps issued a response claiming that the statement by their Norwegian colleague did not represent the firm’s position, which is: They have no policy about working with Israel. 

Burson-Marsteller, headquartered in New York City, hasn't shied away from controversy in the past. It is the same firm that took on rebuilding Tylenol’s brand after the tampering case, worked on helping Dow Chemical weather the Bhopal chemical disaster which killed thousands, and currently represents the Washington Redskins in their battle to keep their name and logo.

Burson-Marsteller isn’t the only company to wade into the turmoil of Middle East politics to land business. Brown Lloyd James, another U.S. PR firm, coordinated a Vogue magazine photo shoot for Syria's first lady and worked on improving the image of then-Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.