Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi

Richard Branson has dropped discussions with Saudi Arabia concerning a $1B investment in his space companies—Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Co. and Virgin Orbit—following the probable murder this month of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, in the Kingdom's consulate in Turkey.

“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” said Branson in a statement.

A more bitter blow to Saudi prestige: Branson is suspending his directorship on two Saudi tourism projects on the Red Sea, which are part of its much-vaunted "Vision 2030" development scheme.

Kudos to Branson.

Will Publicis Groupe, parent company of Qorvis Communications, Saudi Arabia's go-to PR firm, follow Branson's example?

Turkey's government told the US that it has audio and video recordings that show Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and his body dismembered, after he walked into Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate to obtain documents needed for his wedding, according to the Oct. 1 WaPo.

Is it good PR for the French communications combine, a publicly traded company, to be connected to a barbarous client with scant tolerance for dissent and freedom of the press? 

Is that the mark that Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun, who assumed the CEO slot in June 2017, wants to put on the company? He doesn't have to defend the acquisition of Qorvis. Maurice Levy, Sadoun's predecessor, pulled the trigger on that deal in 2014.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Saudi Arabia hired Qorvis following news that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. 

The Washington-based firm, which was founded in 2000 by Shandwick Public Affairs chief Michael Petruzzello, had taken over the PR duties of Burson-Marsteller.

Saudi Arabia quickly became Qorvis' meal ticket, spending staggering sums for campaigns to persuade US decision-makers that the Saudis were America's ally in the war on terrorism. 

E.g., O'Dwyer's Washington Report reported Dec. 27, 2002, that Saudi Arabia spent $14.6M at Qorvis during the six-month period ended Sept. 30 to "increase the awareness in the U.S. of the Kingdom's commitment to the war against terrorism and to peace in the Middle East."

The Kingdom no longer spends such lofty sums at Qorvis, though the PR shop remains a big part of its image machine.

Qorvis, for instance, squired Crown Prince Salman on his charm tour of the US. The firm engaged with Lockheed Martin, US Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg, Amazon, General Motors and KKR Global Institute during that trip, according to Justice Dept. reports.

The 33-year-old Crown Prince reportedly is the guy who ordered the hit on Khashoggi.

Publicis has every right to represent any client that it wants. 

I've long believed that even the most reprehensible client deserves the right to communicate. It's the only way to promote understanding and positive change.

It must be tough fronting a client that allegedly tortured, murdered and dismembered a prominent journalist. Sadoun has a big decision to make.