Case study: fighting for freedom in the #FreeAJStaff campaign
When three Al Jazeera English journalists were arrested by Egyptian authorities in late 2013, Ogilvy PR Australia was called upon to provide media and government relations services to ensure their release.
This case study is published in memory of the late Michael Hartmann, who worked tirelessly for the cause throughout its duration. Michael unfortunately passed away after a short illness late last year.
Client: Al Jazeera English
Agency: Ogilvy PR Australia (comprising Parker and Partners and Howorth)
This article originally appeared in The Versus Issue, our February/March issue of Marketing mag.
In late 2013, Al Jazeera English (AJE) journalist Peter Greste and his two colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy were arrested by Egyptian authorities, charged with consorting with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. All were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
The conviction was internationally condemned, but as days, weeks and months passed, support for Greste and his colleagues did not appear to be leading to any real action. There was a growing concern that the three would fade into a memory.
AJE engaged Ogilvy PR Australia to provide media and government relations services, and issues management advice to generate media, public and political momentum to ensure the release of Greste, Mohamed and Fahmy.
This was an immensely challenging task in which Ogilvy PR and AJE had to exercise the utmost care at all times with Greste, Mohamed and Fahmy’s personal welfare top of mind. Egypt’s zero tolerance approach to terrorism saw a real likelihood that the trio would be paraded as an example if our approach was not managed in a way that took into account political and diplomatic sensitivities.
We had to walk a fine line, pushing for the release, but not embarrassing the Egyptian Government, insulting the Egyptian people or ridiculing their judicial system. An obvious strategy may have been to have Greste tell his own story. However, in the context of an unclear judicial process, and in a delicate diplomatic environment, Ogilvy PR and AJE realised that doing so may threaten the chance of his release.
We determined that without Greste’s voice, we would fill the void by helping his family tell both Greste’s story and their own. This created new ways for media and political advocates to show support and to stand together in solidarity across traditional divides.
Additionally, from media coverage and direct contact we knew Australian journalists and politicians viewed Greste’s situation with great empathy, but didn’t see any direct way in which they personally could help. MPs were unsure how any action of theirs would influence the outcome. We had to find a diplomatic way to ensure the fight continued.
The strategy focused on three objectives:
- maintain political and diplomatic attention to secure an early release,
- keep Greste’s situation high on the public agenda through sustained national media coverage and
- amplify support and concern for Greste and the family via social media and events.
Helping the media
The coverage of the trial through media was not resonating with the broader Australian public, so we redirected the story to be about an Australian man who was merely doing his job.
Working with our AJE colleagues in Doha, London and New York, alongside Greste’s legal teams, we ensured that regular media opportunities for family members coincided with key points in the legal and diplomatic process. Family members gave updates on Greste’s trial, while showing all that they were an ordinary family facing extraordinary circumstances.
The media activity drove a focus on press freedom and on ordinary people thrust into a maelstrom – focusing on the strength and dignity of the Greste family.
Partnering with various organisations, including Amnesty and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, we developed a public forum at the New South Wales State Library where supporters could hear updates from Greste’s family in an open forum, also attended by AJE’s managing director Al Anstey. The forum generated national media coverage.
We organised a press freedom event in conjunction with AJE, attended by the Grestes and key influencers. Attendees included Hugh Riminton, Mark Colvin, Quentin Dempster and Christine Milne. Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, provided the keynote.
As part of the global #FreeAJStaff social media campaign, we coordinated with the AJE team in Doha to have the newsrooms of Australian media outlets, including Fairfax, SBS and ABC, join their international colleagues (CNN, BBC, Washington Post and many more) in a show of solidarity by taping their mouths and holding #FreeAJStaff banners. These images were shared throughout the world via social media.
Ogilvy PR used its position as a non-partisan agency to help build a bridge across the political divide and ensure all Federal politicians recognised that the quest for Greste’s freedom was not just the responsibility of the Foreign Minister, but rather an issue of deep importance for all who believe in the sanctity of press freedom.
We established meetings for the family with MPs and ministers. We enlisted champions within Parliament House and across political parties. We arranged meetings for the family with the Egyptian Ambassador, and introduced the family to key members of the Press Gallery.
The PM was following the issue, but left it to his Foreign Minister to comment. In liaison with a gala event at the National Press Club, we were able to coordinate a private meeting for Greste’s parents and the PM. A week later (then Prime Minister) Tony Abbott raised Greste’s case in person with the Egyptian President.
After 13 months in prison, Greste was released on 1 February 2015 by order of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi under a new law allowing foreign prisoners to be deported.
By placing the Greste family at the centre of our strategy over the 400 days of Greste’s captivity, using the right media engagement strategy and connecting the family with key political figures, we achieved the goal of ensuring Greste’s case was not forgotten.
Over the course of the campaign to have Greste and his colleagues released, Ogilvy PR and Al Jazeera English generated more than 1000 pieces of national and international media exposure, alongside 357,000 tweets made in support of #FreeAJstaff, reaching 112.2 million Twitter users. Australian politicians made 186 speeches on the issues across all levels of government.
It was the wish of Greste’s family that when he returned to Australia, he would visit the Australian Government in Canberra to personally thank all within Parliament, whose efforts had contributed to his release.
The Greste family and AJE vested Ogilvy PR with the responsibility of arranging the two-day program in Canberra, including a private event with the Prime Minister and politicians, a televised address at the National Press Club, and Greste and his family attending Parliamentary Question Time.
When Greste addressed a capacity crowd at the National Press Club, it was broadcast by live by ABC1, ABC 24 and Sky, such was the national interest generated.
Following Greste’s release, Ogilvy PR continued to work with him and AJE, to ensure that Mohamed and Fahmy were also returned home to their families – with Mohamed and Fahmy’s release occurring in September 2015.
The campaign has won a number of awards. Below is a selection of the awards – not the full list.
SABRE Awards Asia-Pacific 2015
- Gold Sabre: Best Australia/ New Zealand campaign
PRIA Golden Targets 2015
- International campaign of the year
- Best issues management and crisis communication campaign
Comms Con 2016
- Best issues management campaign
- Best government relations campaign