APCO Worldwide, Malaysia and the wages of spin
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APCO Worldwide, Malaysia and the wages of spin

At a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club briefing earlier today, John Arnold, the Indonesia head of spin merchants APCO Worldwide, asked Mari Elka Pangestu, Indonesia’s trade minister, what the country could do to improve its poor international image.

The answer he presumably wanted to hear was that Indonesia would take on an international PR firm to dispel some of the damaging myths about the country and promote its attractions as a tourism and investment destination to the wider world.

Indonesia, which gets far fewer tourists than much smaller neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, could surely do with a good international branding campaign and tourism slogan (Malaysia: Truly Asia has certainly worked wonders).

But the government may balk at the likely cost of such assistance. After persistent questioning from Malaysia’s opposition, the Malaysian government has finally revealed that it will pay APCO 76.8 million ringgit ($24 million) for one year of public relations consultancy – more than double what the government originally suggested it was paying.

That’s a staggering amount for a developing country to pay for PR advice and it’s no surprise that Malaysia’s opposition parties are looking to make political capital out of the revelation.

Simon Cowell, who gets far more press attention globally than Malaysia, reportedly only pays £250,000 ($385,000) a year to retain the services of Max Clifford, one of Britain’s leading PR advisers.

Seriously though, Malaysia does need to engage with the Western world if it is to restart its stuttering economy. And international PR/lobbying firms can help to open some doors and improve general perceptions.

But, having spent such a large chunk of state cash, the onus will now be on the Malaysian government to justify that it was money well spent.