Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167

Message strategies of Saudi Arabia’s image restoration campaign after 9/11
Juyan Zhang a,∗ , William L. Benoit b
a

Department of Communication, Monmouth University, 400 Cedar Avenue, West Long Branch, NJ 07764, USA b University of Missouri, CA, USA Received 13 October 2003; received in revised form 1 February 2004; accepted 20 February 2004

Abstract The research applies Image Restoration Discourse to Saudi Arabia’s attempt to repair its damaged reputation after 9/11. The country was accused of supporting terrorism and of failing to support a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. It was suggested that by relying heavily on denial and bolstering, the image repair effort was partially successful at dispelling the first concern; it was notably less effective in responding to the second accusation. © 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Message strategy; Image restoration campaign; Reputation

1. Introduction: events and accusations Nations have images, and relations between countries have always been shaped by images (Giffard & Rivenburgh, 2000; Kunczik, 1997). The United States has become the most important target of public relations efforts by countries seeking to improve their images (Bennett, 1988; Cutlip, 1997). Although image cultivation is practiced increasingly by nations, it is rare for a country to try to restore a tarnished national image through crisis management. The image restoration campaign by the Saudi government in the United States since September 11, 2001 is such a case. Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States was seriously damaged by its connections with terrorism. The country was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and over 100 Saudi citizens made up the bulk of the Afghanistan war prisoners detained at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay (Most Guantanamo Bay detainees are Saudis, 2002). Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi national. The country was also accused of

Corresponding author. Fax: +1-732-571-3609. E-mail addresses: juyan z@yahoo.com (J. Zhang), benoitw@missouri.edu (W.L. Benoit).

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S. Literature review 2. A Rand Corporation analyst even accused the country as being “the kernel of evil.L.162 J. plan to attack Iraq. Although the poll did not attempt to ascertain the cause of this shift. Saudi Arabia launched an extensive image repair campaign from mid-July 2002 through early September 2002. reducing offensiveness. 47% of respondents reported a favorable attitude toward Saudi Arabia and 46% were unfavorable (“Overall opinion of Saudi Arabia”. This study examines the message strategies that the Saudi government employed in restoring its image in the United States. public relations firms. said that his government was employing American political campaign techniques to restore its image: hiring a publicity team. corrective action. 2002). 1. being more accessible to the press. public relations firm hired by the Colombian government coached visiting Colombian officials on their presentations. Two Gallup Polls quantify the damage to Saudi Arabia’s image in the United States. Therefore. consultants and a media-buying firm. Public diplomacy and message strategies Strategies to shape messages were scarcely attended in public diplomacy research.1. In February 2001. surely the accusations sketched above contributed to Saudi Arabia’s image problem. 2001). sending officials on speaking tours.2. it did not support the U. However. Adel al-Jubeir. The theory argues that there are five general options available for self-defense: denial. only 27% reported favorable attitudes toward Saudi Arabia and the unfavorable group had increased to 64% (Overall opinion of Saudi Arabia. Image repair campaign Facing an image crisis. The Saudi government ran hundreds of television and radio spots in America. The Saudi government spent more than $5 million by the September 11 anniversary and hired prominent U. Benoit / Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167 aiding the Palestinian suicide bombers and failing to support U.S”. an adviser to the Saudi government. W. 2. First. First we identify which message strategies were employed in this public relations campaign.S. The public relations firms hired by the Mexican government drafted the embassy’s press releases. placing ads in publications like People magazine and Stars & Stripes (“Worried Saudis pay millions to improve image in the U. . it failed to combat terrorism.1. Image restoration theory Benoit’s (1995) image restoration theory is applied to analyze the campaign’s message strategies. we argue that Saudi Arabia’s image suffered damage from two primary accusations. evading responsibility. the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East (“Pentagon blasts Saudi Arabia report”. facts sheets and all media pieces following embassy guidelines. Zhang. 2002). 2002). Zaharna and Villalobos (2000) reported that the U. the prime mover. Then we evaluate the persuasiveness of this international image repair effort. plan to attack Iraq. Second.S. 2. and mortification (see Table 1). cultivating research organizations and polling Americans on their opinions. Manheim and Albritton (1984) briefly mentioned that public relations firms hired by foreign governments might help shape message strategies for the client.S. law firms. a year later (after 9/11).

and relationship of ideas in the persuasive message(s). 3. Rhetorical criticism is the “systematic process of illuminating and evaluating” persuasive messages (Andrews. Leff. 1998). All of the news releases. & Terrill. Zhang. The rhetorical critic also can make a judgment of the importance of the elements of the message as a gestalt that considers not only simple frequency but also prominence as indicated by placement. Texts The texts were obtained from three sources. 2002. competes directly with you for Disabled movie-goers given free passes after denied admission to AT&T long-distance upgrades. Method 3. 1997). Rhetorical analysis This study employs the method of rhetorical criticism. W.J. promised to spend millions more to improve service AT&T apologized for service interruption Source: Brinson and Benoit (1999). .1. 3.L. Unlike content analysis. not fraud Helping humans justifies testing animals Coke: Pepsi owns restaurants. Four widely aired TV/Radio spots were also located.2. The Saudi Embassy website is the most important data source. Stories about Saudi Arabia in the Washington Post and the New York Times were searched in Lexis-Nexis from September 11 through June 21. 2002). which helps understand how people “use symbols to influence one another” (Campbell & Burkholder. The news stories were screened and those that quoted Saudi news sources were used. when the Arab ministers met in Cairo and decided to launch media campaign in the West (“Arab states start media campaign”. Benoit / Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167 Table 1 Typology of image restoration strategies Strategy Denial Simple denial Shift the blame Key characteristics Did not perform act Another performed act Example Tylenol: did not poison capsules Tylenol: a “madman” poisoned capsules Firm moved because of new taxes Executive not told meeting was moved Tree fell on tracks causing train wreck Sears wants to provide good auto repair service 163 Evasion of responsibility Provocation Responded to act of another Defeasibility Lack of information/ability Accident Mishap Good intentions Meant well Reducing offensiveness of event Bolstering Stress good traits Minimization Act is not serious Differentiation Act is less offensive Transcendence More important values Attack accuser Reduce accuser’s credibility Compensation Reimburse victim Corrective action Mortification Plan to solve/prevent recurrence of problem Apologize Exxon’s “swift and competent” cleanup of oil spill Exxon: few animals killed in oil spill Sears: unneeded repairs were preventive maintenance. statements and speeches were downloaded from the “News Room” link. development. rhetorical criticism examines the relationship of context and message.

. it employed differentiation to respond to this accusation.S. these statements could be dismissed as self-serving. 4. 2002). if accepted by the audience. Results The textual analysis is divided into sections for each accusation and the Saudi responses into strategies of the typology of Benoit’s image restoration theory.” (Nader. 2001). the Saudi declared that it “stands firm behind efforts” to combat terrorism (“Prince Bandar stresses Kingdom’s stand against terrorism”. 4. Islam “forbids terrorism” (“Saudi royal family continues to condole Americans”. Attack accuser A smaller component of the defense enacted the strategy of attacking accusers. third-person endorsement was adopted. These sources make Saudi Arabia’s denial of the charge more persuasive. The defense protested that Saudi money . Furthermore.” and “has barked about these things” just to “drive a wedge between our two countries” (“Saudi–U. Saudi rhetoric asserted that western media tended to “arbitrarily throw out accusations against Muslims” (“Imam of Makkah calls for wisdom and reason”. 2001). The “Flags” spot reported that Saudi donated “more foreign aid per capita than any other nation. Instead.” 4. media says about my country is incorrect or misleading. Saudi Arabia “has taken many actions to fight global terrorism” (“Summary Report: Initiatives and actions in the fighting against terrorism”. they have been nothing less than cooperative” (“Bush Quote”. 2002). The “Bush Quote” spot pointed out that President Bush acknowledged that “As far as the Saudi Arabians go . Foreign Policy Advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz ‘Meet the Press. The accusation that Saudi was hesitant to fight terrorism in Afghanistan is “just not true” (“Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor interview with Al-Jubeir”. 2002).2. Therefore. .S. Denial The Saudi Government relied heavily on denial to respond to this criticism. 2002). 2002).” Of course. Next. Differentiation Saudi Arabia could not deny that it had provided assistance to the Palestinian suicide bombers’ families. 2001). and not honest about the facts. The spot “Powell Quote” uses Colin Powell’s words: “Saudi Arabia has been prominent among the countries acting against the accounts of terrorist organizations” (“Powell Quote”.164 J. . Saudi Arabia has provided” (“Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor interview with Al-Jubeir”. Saudi “did not fund (Palestinian) suicide bombers” (“Saudi Arabia does not pay suicide bombers”. 2001) and the terrorists were not “true Muslims” (“Crown Prince Abdullah’s interview with ‘Time’ magazine”. .’ NBC-TV”. 2002) Such claims could reduce the persuasiveness of those accusations. 2002). W.S.L. relations discussed with Adel Al-Jubeir. or at least did not actively combat terrorism. 2001). Benoit / Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167 4. Zhang. “Everything the U.1. 2002). Accusation 1: “Saudi Arabia supports terrorism. The Rand analyst who attacked Saudi Arabia received most of the counter attacks: He is “shallow. It denied “any connection to terrorism” (“Crown Prince Abdullah condoles American people”. 2002). These statements. Saudi Prince said that “90 percent of what the U. would tend to reduce the credibility of the accusations against Saudi Arabia. has requested . It asserted that “there is no proof” that Saudi money went to the Taliban (“Prince Nayef reiterates Kingdom’s rejection of terrorism”.3.

J. Second. First. plan to attack Iraq.” If some money had gone to the Palestinian suicide bombers’ families. it expressed shock and concern over the 9/11 tragedy. Immediately after the attack. 4.” 4. This suggests that Saudi Arabia did not have the legitimate authority to support such an attack without approval from the UN. Saudi Foreign Minister went to the United States to “offer in person the condolences.7. W. 2002). “it’s to help them in their need. it emphasizes the accuser’s positive qualities to counterbalance the accusations.S. Saudi Arabia bolstered its image in four ways. 4.” Thus. 2002).5. ‘Please try to look at this problem and resolve it so that we can remove Bin Laden’s breeding ground.” It is “counterproductive” and would have “grave consequences for American interests in the region. “Our view is that .4. these remarks suggest that Saudi Arabia has not yet bestowed or withheld its support because the United States has yet to provide a plan of attack. 4. the Saudi Government admitted that money had been sent to Palestine to provide food and medicine (Katz. he stated that “I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East. Another argument is that the United States does not yet have a specific plan: “You’ll have to make the case. Benoit / Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167 165 for Palestine was not to support the bombings but “to put food on their tables and medicine in their pharmacies. 2002). while denying financial support for Palestinian suicide bombings. the Saudi prince argued that he meant well and his comments were well-intended (Nader. Accusation 2: “Saudi Arabia failed to support the U. or the interests of the region. Zhang. the Saudi royal family paid visits to U. diplomats to offer condolences.” These kinds of actions could help bolster the country’s image.” The comment led Mayor Giuliani to reject the check.” So. the country offered aid and support to the victims of the terrorist attacks.”’ 2002). Good intentions Saudi Arabia also reacted to the accusation by arguing that it did this in the interest of the United States.6. the Saudi prince claimed that “I wanted to show the good face of the Arab world. Thus. as well as the interests of your friends and allies” (Katz. Guiliani asserted that the Saudi prince was trying to justify the terrorist attack. Responding to the accusation. Saudi Prince Alwaleed donated a check of $10 . it [to attack Iraq] would not serve America’s interests. Bolstering Bolstering often does not pertain to a particular accusation.S.L.” “We tried to tell America.” “We should go through a process” (“Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor interview with Al-Jubeir”. . Defeasibility Saudi Arabia suggested that it was inappropriate for it to support an attack on Iraq without the support of the United Nations: “There is a UN mechanism that we go through. I don’t believe that the decision has been made yet” (“Adel Al-Jubeir Foreign Policy Advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on CNN’s ‘Crossfire. Good intentions When Saudi prince Alwaleed donated a $10 million check to New York after September 11. 2002). . These kinds of statements appear to function as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s good intentions.

the country quickly retreated from its initial opposition to attacking Iraq after Bush addressed the United Nations. It also indicated that it would make up any shortfall that might result from war if oil price is pushed high. The “Allies” spot features snapshots of Saudi leaders with eight U. 2002). Part of the message strategies appeared to be effective. as a whole. 6. this image repair effort was partially effective. “We’ve been allies for more than 60 years. . This case study shows that countries can have modest success improving their reputation through the use of image repair discourse. as favorable responses rose (22–39%) and unfavorable ones dropped (56–44%). there was positive movement in attitudes. Thus. Denial. 2002) This evidence is generally consistent with our evaluation that the strategies were partially effective. we judge the overall defense as only partially effective. This is supported by some external evidence.S. Benoit / Public Relations Review 30 (2004) 161–167 million for the Twin Towers Fund. .S. Bolstering probably helped but could be expected to help only a little. Implications This research applied Benoit’s Image Restoration Theory to analyze the message strategies of the Saudi image restoration campaign after September 11.” The voiceover of the spot “Flags” said that “One country [Saudi Arabia] has been an ally for over 60 years. . Zhang. An Opinion Dynamics poll in April 30–May 1. the response to the rest of this first accusation was noticeably weaker: No evidence supported the claim that funding had not supported the Palestinian suicide bombers. 5. A racehorse was given to the 9/11 victim families. good intentions and differentiation received scant emphasis in the defense. 2002 found that 22% considered Saudi Arabia U. Thus. A Washington Post poll conducted September 1–3 of 2002. attacking accusers and bolstering were major components of the image repair effort. and effective partners” (Katz. the Saudi government reiterated its friendship with the United States: “We have been staunch allies . presidents. the country pled defeasibility and good intention. These actions show that the Saudi government possesses general humanitarian qualities. W.” (Fabrizio. the country discussed humanitarian efforts in other countries. However. Third.166 J. The fact that Saudi Arabia had revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship was consistent with denial of the first accusation. Other evidence suggests that many people believed that Saudi Arabia’s advertising blitz was an attempt to “capitalize on September 11 and promote their country (53%) than a sincere show of support for Americans during the difficult time (21%). though it was rejected. The country’s denial was also supported with endorsement from President Bush and Secretary of State Powell. near the end of the Saudi campaign. Furthermore. Finally. The voiceover says.” These messages employ bolstering because they serve to stress that Saudi Arabia is a valuable ally of the United States. Conclusion Saudi Arabia developed an extensive image repair effort to restore its reputation after 9/11. reported that 39% considered Saudi Arabia a friend and ally while 44% considered it to be unfriendly or an enemy. Defeasibility. 2002). Saudi Arabia claimed that it “has long been committed to providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinians” and is “committed to the peace process for over 30 years” (Al-Jubeir.L. Instead. Saudi Television collected donations for Afghani refugees. The Saudi Mosaic Foundation gave donations to the DC schools and the fund that aids September 11 victims. there was no attempt to deny the second accusation. Ally and 56% did not. Furthermore. Thus.

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