Contrary to what Prime Minister Robert Abela told parliament, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) appears to have spent a significant amount of taxpayers’ money on local and international public relations consultancy, an analysis of information published in the Government Gazette shows.
In February, PN MP Jason Azzopardi asked Abela to state and list exactly how much money has been spent by the OPM on public relations (PR) and communications consultancies since 2013, when the Labour Party came to power.
Abela replied last week that no entity or department that falls under the remit of the Prime Minister’s office has spent any money on such services. But according to information publicly available in the Government Gazette and past PQs analysed by The Shift, between 2013 and the present day, the OPM spent hundreds of thousands on consultancy services to some of the most well-known PR and advisory consultancies in the world.
The hundreds of thousands spent by the OPM is, in turn, a mere fraction of the total spend by the government on PR, communications and similar marketing related services over the years.
In 2014, Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote about Leslie Skipper, a former journalist-cum-PR consultant from the UK. At the time, he was on a €7,000 retainer which was supposed to cover 12 months of work.
Information published in the Government Gazette shows he was giving services to the “PM’s secretariat and other ministries and parliamentary secretariats” for “technical advice”.
Not only was he kept on a retainer, but he worked on “communications strategy” for €2,360. In 2015, his contract was then turned into a €3,638.33 monthly fee.
His contract was renewed yearly. But in November 2017, he received another €37,000 for “assistance in ME’s (then Minister of the Economy Chris Cardona) public relations efforts targeted to the UK market.” He landed another €22,388 in 2018 for services to the same ministry.
In 2019, he got another €37,000 for another year’s worth of services.
Bell Pottinger, an infamous and now-defunct PR company described as having “the most controversial client list” in the industry, also appears in the Government Gazette.
This means that Joseph Muscat’s government joined a rather colourful array of peers including the Pinochet Foundation, murderer Oscar Pistorius, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and the first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad.
The company went into administration following accusations they facilitated State capture in South Africa, to the benefit of the Gupta Family, while exploiting racial tensions for political and commercial gain.
In 2015, Bell Pottinger received a direct order from the OPM for the “provision of a qualitative research project.” A year prior to that, Centreground Political Communications, a PR firm bought by Bell Pottinger earlier in 2014, was also awarded another undisclosed sum by OPM for a “qualitative research service”.
Tens of thousands were also handed over to the M&C Saatchi Group, an international communications consultancy in London. They were brought in to help with the Valletta Summit on Migration and CHOGM 2015.
They then advised the Planning Authority to the tune of more than €62,000 in 2017. The direct order was for the marketing of a “Paceville master plan”, although the direct order was formally granted months after the master plan was scrapped.
Other examples include advertising and branding firm TBWA\ANG, founded by Godfrey Grima, journalist turned advertiser with close relations to the Labour Party, who passed away last March. TBWA\ANG was paid €40,000 by the Ministry of Finance for the “provision of marketing services for a period of 24 months”.
In 2018, the government dropped some €210,000 for “provision of assistance on how to manage the communication aspect in relation to the current media reporting about the MFSA and specific cases falling under the remit of the MFSA”.
In 2018, MFSA fell under the OPM’s remit after being quietly removed from Edward Scicluna’s portfolio.
The money went to Communications and Network Consulting and was likely related to managing the fallout of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination and the Pilatus Bank scandal.
Reports also claim that the government used the services of Chelgate or its former employee Robert A. Winstanley, who would in 2018 set up his own reputation management firm and related Maltese company, to help devise a PR strategy to also manage that fallout.
The OPM denied engaging Chelgate, although former OPM communications head Kurt Farrugia testified that Chelgate “offered some services to the government” and that he used to consult with Winstanley.
Almost €5,500 was given to Steves & Co for the “development of a brand identity” for the National Development and Social Fund (NSDF), the fund created for passport money. In 2020, the government both drastically slashed the amount to be given to the NSDF from Golden Passport and Visa sales from 70% to just 20% but also removed any reference to the NSDF in the new regulations issued that same year.
But aside from the many more direct orders to pollsters Bloom Research (including for gauging approval ratings for a “constitutional convention”), Brandcast Media, Professor Dimitry Kochenov (who failed to declare his role with the Maltese government to the university where he lectures), KEKST CNC, and Malta-based marketing company, Ikona Artworks, other interesting names pop up over the last eight years.
In 2013, the Planning Authority awarded a direct order to Nicholas Wright to the tune of €39,000 (excluding VAT) a year for three years. When the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation asked, via a Freedom of Information request, for more information on the order including details of work he did, minutes from meetings, correspondence, contracts, and engagement letters, the Planning Authority said they lost them.
Wright worked on Muscat’s 2013 and 2017 election campaign while also being employed by Luntz Global Partners. He was previously in a CEO role at Sentio, a communications company registered in Malta, which was bought by Luntz Global Partners in 2013.
Now, he is CEO of Sentio Group, believed to still be linked to Luntz.
Invoices to Sentio included the company number of Bloom research Ltd, a company owned by Maltese property developer Jan Spiteri and ex-MISCO researcher Alida Buttigieg, who also sat on the board of Sentio. Both Sentio companies in Malta have since been shut down.
Luntz Global Partners is headed by US citizen Frank Luntz. He is known as a staunch Republican and has worked on pro-Israeli campaigns against the Palestinians, on global warming denial, and electoral campaigns during several UK elections, and elections in Ireland, Australia and the US.
Via his Twitter platform in 2013, Wright was vocal in supporting the Labour government, particularly on the matter of cash-for-passports. He also repeatedly dismissed any allegations of corruption and repeated that the PL was what the people wanted.
In 2019, he tweeted that “Daphne was neither impartial nor a journalist”. He also called her sister who is still campaigning for justice over her assassination “a fuckwit”.
V happy w/my choices. Think I'd be less so if I was living off hand-outs and a myth, claiming a Pulitzer I never won, to eke out existence as a semi-pro troll. Truly admirable stuff… Byeee!
— Nicholas Wright (@NicholasHWright) May 15, 2020
Then in 2020, he attacked Caruana Galizia’s sons on Twitter, accusing them of “living on hand-outs and a myth, claiming a Pulitzer never won, to eke out [an] existence as a semi-pro troll”.
It’s unclear whether he is still being paid by the Maltese government and whether this activity constitutes some of his services offered.
The examples listed here are by no means exhaustive and do not cover other media, marketing, and communications expenditures. These include Facebook advertising, paid-for articles, design, V18, Air Malta, NAS Daily, blockchain summits and various other events and services.
Considering the vast expenditure on reputation management, PR, branding, marketing and advisory services, across multiple government entities, institutions, ministries and departments including specifically the OPM, Abela’s reply in parliament that no money has been spent by OPM on PR consultancy seems at best ignorant, and at worst, dishonest.