New Suez Canal opening a moment of national pride for Egypt

Strong media relations effort highlights economic importance of $8 billion project

An American aircraft carrier in the Suez Canal (Image via Wikipedia commons).
An American aircraft carrier in the Suez Canal (Image via Wikipedia commons).

Client: Suez Canal Authority
Agency: Ogilvy Public Relations
Campaign: New Suez Canal – Egypt’s Gift to the World
Duration: 15 days

In early August 2015, Ogilvy Public Relations finessed a major international event as a significant achievement for Egypt and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – the opening of the new Suez Canal.

Leveraging the expertise of WPP, the Ogilvy team created an integrated communications campaign spanning advertising, PR, social media, and events. A senior global media team was tapped to handle global media relations, as well as targeted in-market support.

Ogilvy helped the new Suez Canal showcase this major achievement for a modern Egypt.

The Suez Canal accounts for 8% of the world’s maritime trade and brings in $5.5 billion annually into the Egyptian economy. When Sisi proposed an ambitious plan to expand the canal, it was met with patriotic fervor from the public.

To accommodate modern ships and to adapt to an increase in world trade, Sisi planned to build a 23-mile channel parallel to the original canal: this would allow two-way traffic for the first time and reduce waiting times for vessels by as much as eight hours. The project was fully financed by Egypt, which raised the $8 billion budget in eight days and, despite projections that canal expansion would take three years to build, it was completed inside 12 months.

The aim was to counter arguments from some economists who questioned whether the canal could deliver on its economic goals by leveraging Suez Canal Authority research that showed it would accelerate the Egyptian economy for decades to come.

At the heart of Ogilvy’s strategy was the belief that an earned media campaign on a global scale would generate stories with the journalistic credibility and gravity necessary for the canal to earn support from global leaders in trade, politics, and Egypt itself. Ogilvy teams around the world were tasked with bringing journalists to Egypt to report on the opening.

"We targeted the most influential global media, such as CNN, BBC, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times – those outlets that drive conversation globally. We leveraged all of those folks based in Cairo," explains Jennifer Risi, MD of media influence and head of media relations for North America at Ogilvy PR. "The other part of the strategy was in-market activity. We targeted media that had a high profile within the market, as well as a focus on investments. The purpose of the new canal is to open up investments within the region so that this could be seen not only as a symbol of the region, but also as a gateway of investments in the Middle East overall."

Ogilvy activated its global network to reach a worldwide audience with outreach tailored for each region, leveraging teams across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas to tap local media around the world. Strategic use of pre-interviews with high-level canal personnel led to preview stories in major global papers in the week before the opening.

The agency arranged for more than 100 top-tier journalists to attend the opening ceremonies in Cairo, sitting alongside the Egyptian people and witnessing the first ships pass through the new canal. Arrangements were made for TV news anchors to broadcast live from the banks of the canal and Ogilvy managed an on-site media bullpen in the desert.

"We had to educate a government on how to really manage communications at this level. To do something like this, you're inviting the world into your country to witness this major moment. And we had to make it authentic, give the right access, and show that there is a new modern Egypt, not just in the infrastructure of the canal, but in how we were welcoming to the country," says Risi.

Efforts resulted in more than 5,000 pieces of coverage garnering more than 7.5 billion media impressions. In North America alone, Ogilvy’s efforts resulted in more than 800 pieces of global coverage including multiple stories from The New York Times, CNN, Associated Press, CNBC, and CBS News. Exclusive interviews led to full-page stories in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.

The day-of launch was attended by several world leaders, including French President François Hollande and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. El-Sisi called the new canal "Egypt’s gift to the world" and presided over a parade of naval vessels and a flyover of F-16s.

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