Burson-Marsteller Suffers Backlash Over Tunisian Government Contract


Someone who was employed by Burson-Marsteller in 2011 made a very ill-advised statement.

That was the primary conclusion drawn from 5W PR founder Ronn Torossian’s Friday New York Observer op-ed, which ran under the URL “the Muslim Brotherhood’s new PR agency rejects Israel” and led to inflammatory headlines like this one from Arutz Sheva:


To clarify, the word “boycott” means “a punitive ban that forbids relations with certain groups, cooperation with a policy, or the handling of goods [produced by that group].” On its website, the publication ran with the more accurate “U.S. PR Giant Refuses Israel as a Client, Works for Brotherhood.

Damage done, though.

To be specific, B-M decided not to represent Israel on a contract basis in 2011 but will now handle PR duties for the government of Tunisia, which is led by Ennahda. Ennahda was the first ruling party to emerge from the Arab Spring movement after the collapse of the country’s longstanding military dictatorship.

It has been described by some publications as “a moderate Islamist party…inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood”, but not everyone agrees: a Jerusalem Post op-ed published after the party won power in 2011 called it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and listed evidence of a past “tendency to violence” among its members.

Three years ago, Sigurd Grytten — who then served as CEO/MD of the firm’s operations in Norway — had this to say about the decision not to take the nation of Israel on as a client at the time:

“We will not deliver tender to such a project… we are running a commercial venture. If we accept this project, this will create a great amount of negative reactions … Israel is a particularly controversial project.”

It was, at the very least, a poorly-worded statement. Interestingly, the first version of the NYO op-ed did not include Grytten’s name, nor did it specify which paper published the quote. We were left wondering which party saved it for future leverage when it first ran three years ago.

In B-M’s initial follow-up, worldwide VP Jano Cabrera answered a “gotcha” inquiry about whether the firm would ever represent Israel by calling it “a rhetorical question” before the group issued an official statement, which it updated today. The newest version reads:

“Here are the facts: Burson-Marsteller considers every client opportunity on its own merits and has no policy that specifically relates to Israel or any other country. In fact, we would represent Israel, as we would other countries. We would give full consideration to any opportunity to represent clients from around the world, including Israel.”

But again, the damage had already been done. See, for example, the responses to the initial statement tweet and headlines like the one mentioned above.

Today Torossian responded to the response, writing:

“I am gratified that Burson-Marsteller has issued its revised statement…But the bottom line remains that in 2011, Burson-Marsteller’s CEO in Norway, Sigurd Grytten, declined to work with Israel and then just days ago agreed to represent Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood.”

Note: in the updated statement, B-M clarified that Grytten has not worked for the firm since 2012.

For context, B-M has represented some of America’s staunchest “pro-Israel” groups in the past. Our own Shawn Paul Wood writes:

“I am a proud former ‘Burson Person’ who led the national launch campaign for Christians United for Israel [founded by Pastor John Hagee] while I was there.”

Every firm large enough to consider itself one of the “largest and most successful” has at least one “controversial” client — and the act of representing diametrically opposed international parties is hardly novel. Several governments outside the U.S. that were not democratically elected are currently represented by American PR firms and/or political consultancies, and the ethical implications of this fact are subject to debate.

Each of those firms has also had to clarify, at some point, that accepting a foreign nation as a client does not mean condoning every action taken or statement made by members of its ruling party.

Still, this is only the most recent incident to clearly demonstrate the risks in accepting such clients’ business.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.