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Saudi and Israeli tourism campaigns offer stark contrast in transparency

Public relations firms working to promote travel to foreign countries are all over the map when it comes to lobbying and PR disclosures.

You may have seen her selling a sun-drenched Israeli vacation on your television, your computer or on the side of a bus. In recent years, model Shir Elmaliach has popped up everywhere as the Israeli Ministry of Tourism seeks to sell the country as a hip destination full of beaches and nightclubs rather than biblical relics. Thanks to US lobbying laws, we have some idea of how much the Israeli government shelled out to target Americans with their “Sunny” soundtrack and other tourism pitches: at least $18.4 million in 2018 and more than $14 million so far this year. It’s all part of a major spending boost under Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia's push to attract Western tourists as the kingdom opens up to the world has been a transparency desert. While breathtaking landscapes have appeared everywhere from Times Square to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to Instagram influencers' feeds, the cost to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage remains cloaked in secrecy.

The discrepancy underscores the haphazard way that public relations companies — and the foreign governments that hire them — have complied with US lobbying laws, according to Joshua Rosenstein, a lawyer who specializes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

“PR companies, ad agencies, consulting firms and the like should get their houses in order and consult competent FARA counsel,” Rosenstein cautioned.

The 1930s law was originally drafted to shed light on Nazi propaganda in the United States, but it now encompasses a much wider array of activity. A 2011 advisory opinion issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) further clarified that tourism promotion on behalf of a foreign country falls within the scope of “political activity” covered by the law as it impacts “the political or public interests, policies or relations of a foreign country.”

“A foreign government hiring a PR firm to rehabilitate the public image of their leader is clearly the type of activity that FARA covers,” Rosenstein told Al-Monitor. “A foreign sovereign wealth fund taking meetings on the Hill or trying to influence US foreign aid, similarly. A foreign government trying to increase tourism from Americans has a similar impact — the increase of financial revenue for the foreign nation. All of these are important in the greater context of why FARA exists: The public should know whether the ads they’re seeing, or the materials being distributed, or the meetings on the Hill, will benefit a foreign government or were funded by a foreign government.”

“The public should know whether the ads they’re seeing, or the materials being distributed, or the meetings on the Hill, will benefit a foreign government or were funded by a foreign government.”

Public relations firms working for tourism offices from Anguilla to Zimbabwe have at some point registered under the law, as have the US branches of foreign governments' tourism agencies. In the Middle East, the New York branches of Abu Dhabi’s and Morocco’s tourism authorities are currently registered, as are public relations firms working for Dubai and Qatar.

But many others are not, risking the possible ire of the DOJ as it steps up enforcement of the law. “Nobody should think, ‘I’m not a lobbyist, therefore I don’t have to abide by the statute,’” Assistant Attorney General John Demers told reporters in September while unveiling a new online filing system for FARA. He added that more people had been complying with the law, citing increased registrations as evidence.

In the case of Israel, public disclosures reveal that the Tourism Ministry’s advertising agency, LAPAM, paid Media Planning International Corporation — a Florida affiliate of French advertising giant Havas — more than $18 million in 2018. So far this year, Israel has paid Media Planning International more than $14 million for cable and broadcast TV ads.

Separately, New Jersey-based MWWPR has promoted Israel through press releases touting the country’s tourism sector. And last month, New York law firm Herrick Feinstein offered use of its facilities rent-free for a joint event for the tourism ministries of Israel and Portugal for an audience of travel executives, wholesalers and top-performing travel advisers.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, PR Week reported last month that the tourism push is being headed by London and Middle East-based communications firm Consulum, which was founded by former executives from Bell Pottinger, the British firm that collapsed in 2017 in a corruption scandal over its activities in Africa. The Saudi push is also helped by Influencer, a British agency that connects social media influencers with clients. Neither firm responded to a request for comment.

US lobbying laws have traditionally focused on activities by firms inside the United States, Rosenstein acknowledged, which would appear to leave the Saudis' PR firms off the hook. But the DOJ has been rethinking its mandate for the globalized economy, even as its authority remains untested.

At a Sept. 25 FARA compliance conference, the new head of the unit, Brandon Van Grack, made news by announcing that the DOJ may begin interpreting the statute to require foreign public relations firms to register when representing companies, countries and interests trying to influence policy in the United States.

“This means that the DOJ FARA unit may soon go after foreign communications agencies whose activities are directed into the US, with an attempt to influence US policy or the US public, particularly via the Internet,” Richard Levick, the CEO and chairman of the Levick public relations firm in Washington, wrote in Forbes. “This is a broad and unprecedented interpretation of the statute that may or may not survive a legal challenge.”

“That’s DOJ’s new position — that you cannot avoid FARA’s reach by sitting in London, or Toronto, and direct your activity into the US,” Rosenstein said. “That would mean that foreign agents based entirely abroad, who place calls or send emails into the US, would need to register.”

But enforcing that position could prove difficult, Rosenstein added, since the law as written applies to agents acting “within the United States.”

“It’s not an issue that’s ever been tested, and it is I think an open question whether DOJ’s argument would suffice,” he said. “Normally, when Congress wants a law to apply on an extraterritorial basis, they have to be explicit.”

The issue gets even thornier when it comes to social media influencers.

“It is a challenge in general, because the law and regulations predate social media, so DOJ has informally filled some of the gaps,” he said — for example, figuring out how to incorporate FARA-mandated disclaimers in a 280-character tweet. “But it’s certainly a heightened challenge with DOJ’s position, because it would mean that PR agencies, or tourism bureaus, sitting abroad, who set up a social media account targeting a US audience, may need to register for that work — even if the account is maintained from abroad."

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