PR agencies snub Royal Brunei Airlines pitch over controversial LGBT laws

PR agencies have begun boycotting Royal Brunei Airlines in the wake of the Kingdom enacting controversial LGBT laws, PRWeek has learned.

Agencies have cooled interest in Brunei's national airline. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
Agencies have cooled interest in Brunei's national airline. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

Update: Over the weekend, after this article was published, the Sultan of Brunei extended a moratorium on the death penalty to incoming legislation on punishments for gay sex. 

The beleaguered airline is in the market for a new PR agency and sounding out prospects.

Royal Brunei Airlines currently works with 8020 Communications on a one-year contract, which is due to conclude this month.

The agency told PRWeek: "8020 Communications was appointed to handle Royal Brunei Airlines’ UK and Ireland communications in May 2018 on a 12-month contract. The contract comes to an end in May 2019 and we wish the UK and international teams at Royal Brunei well for the future."

Today, PR Agency One was sounded out by Royal Brunei Airlines to find out if it was interested, but the agency told the airline it would decline to pitch.

Managing director James Crawford told PRWeek the agency is careful to only choose clients that match its vision and values – a policy that has seen it avoid working with tobacco clients and others.

"I’d be very surprised if any agency takes a brief from Royal Brunei," Crawford said. "Most people in the UK are progressive and forward-thinking people and are appalled by what Brunei is doing.

"I hope businesses boycotting Brunei companies puts some pressure on for change."

The Sultan of Brunei enacted controversial anti-LGBT+ laws. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

Who 'would touch it?'

PRWeek approached other agencies that specialise in the travel sector to see if they would be interested in pitching for the Royal Brunei Airlines account.

Rooster, an agency that was critical of Brunei when PRWeek initially covered the issue, had not been approached, but would decline.

"While the search for an agency is a positive sign that the airline recognises the seriousness of the issue, I’d be amazed that anyone with any knowledge of the LGBT or travel sectors would touch it," Rooster managing director James Brooke said.

"And the reality is that there’s zero room for the agency to communicate in. Until Brunei changes its stance, how can the nation’s flagship carrier distance itself from the highly contentious stance of its master."

Another travel PR specialist, Four Travel, had not been approached by the airline by Friday (3 May) evening.

An agency boss, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it would be "nearly impossible" for any agency to help sell Brunei as a travel destination in the wake of the backlash.

The issue erupted in early April when the Kingdom’s long-serving ruler Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, put into force draconian interpretations of sharia law, which include death by stoning as a punishment for gay sex and adultery, and amputations for theft.

In response, A-list celebrities, businesses and governments began boycotting companies owned by Brunei, notably including The Dorchester Collection luxury hotels and Royal Brunei Airlines.

Several PR professionals joined the boycott calls including Rooster’s James Brooke and Talker Tailor Trouble Maker co-founder Steven Strickland.

On Sunday, the kingdom announced it would extended a moratorium on the death penalty for laws targeting the LGBTI community – which represents a dramatic u-turn and is the second time in recent years the Sultan has backed down in the face of global pressure.

PRWeek has approached other agencies for this report and will update further responses.

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