The government has engaged reputation management company Digitalis, which specialises in online search result manipulation, raising questions on attempts to whitewash scandals using public funds.
Sources who spoke to The Shift on condition of anonymity said a two-year contract worth millions of euro was awarded to the company in December by direct order, bypassing public procurement regulations.
While questions sent to Digitalis and Finance Minister Clyde Caruana remain unanswered, The Shift has verified discussions were held in December 2023.
Sources claimed these involved plans for “rebuilding” Malta’s reputation by strategically publicising a “positive narrative” for its economic sectors.
Digitalis’ services were sought to improve the image of various government entities, including the Finance Ministry, the Malta Fiscal Advisory Council, Finance Malta, the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, the Malta Financial Services Authority and the Malta Gaming Authority, among others.
The government agencies targeted for ‘reputation management’ coincide with those tarnished in Malta’s greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force between 2021 and 2022 due to its weak measures to combat money laundering and opaque financing.
The Shift has reported how, after the greylisting, the MFSA and FIAU spent hundreds of thousands on sponsored media content and public relations advertising locally and internationally.
Based in London, Digitalis promotes itself as an advisory firm that “helps clients protect and advance their online interests”. The UK firm offers online ‘reputation and narrative management’ and ‘digital risk and intelligence’ services.
Through search engine optimisation, the use of keywords and webpage formatting to rank higher in search results, and “proprietary technology”, Digitalis promises “to make sure your story is being told in the way you want it to be” on their website.
Through its ‘online narrative management tools’, Digitalis advertises its ability to help “reset the narrative presented in online searches following an unplanned event.”
The firm additionally advertises its “litigation support” capabilities, raising concerns about its use to abet the Maltese government’s vexatious lawsuits to silence dissenting voices (SLAPPs).
Digitalis is led by CEO David King, with businessman Gregory Mark Wood as chairperson. Questions sent to King asking about the firm’s engagement with the Maltese government and the deliverables expected from the company remained unanswered at the time of publication.
Considering the direct order contract’s value runs into millions of euro, approval by the Department of Contracts must be sought. It is unclear whether such approval was granted or why a competitive tendering process was not launched for the services.
The Maltese government is no stranger to using public relations management firms to whitewash tarnished reputations.
Positive government PR is so endemic among London PR firms that they have become known as “London launderettes.”
The practice gained particular popularity under disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s administration.
Muscat’s use of PR firms extended to his 2013 electoral campaign, a defence of the government’s image at EU institutions, and an attempt to derail the public inquiry into journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination through the use of disinformation tactics.