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Peter Greste campaign strategist admits they played down Al Jazeera link as ‘it sounds nasty’

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Ross: the challenge was turning global sympathy into global pressure

The strategist behind the campaign to free Australian journalist Peter Greste from an Egyptian prison has admitted the campaign sought to play down the fact he worked for TV network Al Jazeera as “it sounds like it’s linked with terrorism”.

Former ABC journalist Heidi Ross worked with Greste’s family on their strategy to keep the case in the media and to push for his eventual release after 400 days behind bars after being convicted on trumped up terror charges along with two colleagues in 2013.

But she admitted the main hurdles in Australia were confusion around who Greste was and suspicion around his employer Al Jazeera amongst the public.

“The challenge we had was nobody knew who Peter was. He worked for a network that began with Al – Al Jazeera – it sounds nasty, it sounds Arabic, it sounds like it’s linked with terrorism,” Ross told the PRIA National Conference.

“But if we steered away from that effectively we had a blank canvas and it was our opportunity to transform Peter as we chose.”

Ross said they chose to focus on his work with the BBC as it “gave him a history with a reliable employer, someone people could trust”.

As the campaign mobilised, his brother Andrew Greste visited Cairo for the journalist’s first court appearance leaving Ross to develop a media strategy to implement on the ground.

“We said anyone who wanted to talk to the Grestes while they were in Cairo would need to have someone on the ground,” Ross explained.

ross greste“It rewarded networks who took the time and money to put people on the ground which was important to us as it’s a big, changing media scene as not a lot of networks will pay to put people on the ground.”

The campaign from there was around “building trust in a brand”, Ross said and making the Australian public understand he was not a terrorist despite the claims, and charges, coming out of Egypt.

“One of the problems we did have was this word terrorism,” Ross said. “Australians were very worried about terrorism and they were told not to trust anyone associated with it and of course the Egyptians were telling people he was a terrorist.

“We had a problem. We needed to tell Egypt he was not a terrorist but we also needed to not use the word in Australia because as soon as the word came up people switched off and went ‘I don’t know what to believe, I just won’t go there’.”

It was this that saw Ross and the Greste family make the “conscious decision” to distance Peter Greste from his employer Al Jazeera.

“In all our press releases we didn’t use the word Al Jazeera. We talked about his colleagues. That was also helpful for us to push the message that Peter was an ordinary guy and just a journalist doing his job,” Ross said.

“It helped for us to get that through to politicians because they could argue it cleanly without the Al Jazeera clutter and helped give them grounds that he should be extracted and he was just caught up in someone else’s mess.”

Following the verdict, which saw Greste sentenced to seven years in prison, Ross said the family introduced a more formal structure which saw the likes of Michael Hartmann, of Ogilvy PR, and journalist Peter Wilkinson join the team.

“We worked on our branding. We needed to replace that hard image of Peter with a friendlier image,” Ross said.

It was at this time that the now iconic photo of Greste in a helmet and bullet-proof vest with the word press emblazoned across it was adopted for their media strategy.

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Ross also emphasised the role of the media as working together to free a colleague as opposed to competing media organisations.

“It was all of us working together to help a colleague. There was no rivalry between the media. If people couldn’t get to a press conference the ABC fed them that footage. It was quite phenomenal to see that kind of sharing happening,” said Ross.

Miranda Ward

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