INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN: Abu Dhabi plans a zero carbon future

With its oil stocks set to run out early next century, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates is fast turning into a champion of sustainable energy.

delegates view a model of Masdar
delegates view a model of Masdar

Campaign: Launch of the World Future Energy Summit, Abu Dhabi
Client: Masdar: The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company
PR Team: Edelman
Timescale: December 2007 - January 2008
Budget: £100,000

To achieve this the Abu Dhabi government set up Masdar: The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

The centrepiece of its work is an ambitious attempt to build the world's most environmentally friendly community; the zero carbon, zero waste and car free Masdar City.

Last year the company appointed Edelman to handle PR for the company's World Future Energy Summit.

To boost visitor and conference delegate numbers at the summit and to use the event to position Abu Dhabi at the forefront of sustainable energy issues among global business, financial, energy and government leaders.

Strategy and plan
To generate publicity for the event Edelman spent much of December and early January drip-feeding the world's media with stories about Masdar City and the work of Masdar itself.

Story angles included a timetable for the construction of the city, news about conference speakers, such as BP CEO Tony Hayward, and a visit to Abu Dhabi by US President George Bush. Edelman liaised with the presidential staff in Washington and convinced them to include the viewing of a model of Masdar City on his itinerary.

This could have generated bad publicity due to Bush's negative image among environmental groups, says Edelman associate director Iain Twine. To counter this the Edelman team timed the release of an endorsement by the World Wildlife Fund of Masdar City for the next day.

Prior to the summit Edelman had pinpointed 25 key environmental journalists from around the world, such as The Guardian's John Vidal. They were all offered exclusives timed for publication on the first day of the summit.

Activity during the event included promoting an appearance by Prince Charles in holographic form as an environmentally friendly way to attend conferences.

Measurement and evaluation
The conference generated 588 newspaper, magazine, broadcast and online mentions, in 48 countries, with a total circulation of more than 162 million. The majority of coverage was in the Middle East and North Africa where 264 articles appeared, followed by Europe, which saw 144 articles.

Coverage included a five-page feature in Time magazine. According to evaluation by Edelman, coverage was 85 per cent positive. Negative mentions included comment pieces that the Masdar initiative was little more than spin given the reportedly high carbon footprint of Abu Dhabi's citizens.

The target of attracting 11,000 visitors and 1,550 conference delegates was achieved. Of those who attended, almost half were director level or above. The opening ceremony attracted 3,600 people. Since the event Edelman has been hired on a rolling contract and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has invited Masdar representatives to the United States to discuss sustainable energy.


Gavin Grant, UK chairman, Burson-Marsteller

The Edelman team has done well to overcome significant cultural and political challenges in the promotion of Masdar: The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

There were many highly imaginative and impressive aspects to the way that the team handled the launch. The holographic Prince Charles appearance is certainly among them. For me, the bravest action was the enrolling of George W Bush during his Middle East tour as a temporary 'ambassador' for the 'green city in the desert'.

I was in Dubai at this time. I saw some of the local and international coverage of the president's visits and its impact in the region. Using Bush in this way was counter-intuitive and audacious, however, it also served to remind everyone of the issues surrounding the US failure to endorse Kyoto.

Edelman was also smart to broker a relationship with WWF, both as an attempt to enhance credibility, and to anticipate attacks from some of the green NGOs. Despite the effusive praise from the green city's architect, Lord Foster, many commentators withheld their endorsement. Others have raised the inevitable social questions about the treatment of construction workers and whether local middle-class people can afford the properties.

For influential thinkers, the concept of sustainability extends beyond carbon neutrality, into this wider 'fairness' agenda. The Edelman team might have thought through this agenda more fully, and how western liberal elites would respond on these issues.

Despite some excellent work and resulting coverage, many communications and reputation challenges remain. The global green jury may well need further persuasion that Masdar can genuinely fulfill its 'green city' ambition and resolve some of these wider sustainability issues.

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