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Hefty PR advice bill after Saudi arms scandal

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12:20 CEST+02:00
When news of the Saudi arms factory broke in March, the Swedish Defence Research Agency hired crisis management consultants for over 300,000 kronor ($43,000).

Tax money well spent, according to the Defence Research Agency's (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI) head of communications, Ann-Sofi Pejler Carlsson.

“It wouldn't be cost effective to have a larger communications department. It's actually fairly standard to bring in external expertise. In IT, for instance, all expertise is not internal,” she said to news agency TT.

The deal behind the controversial arms factory was revealed by Swedish national radio station SR on 6 March, showing that FOI had formed the decoy company SSTI to arrange the building of an arms factory.

As the scandal unfolded, defence minister Sten Tolgfors was forced to resign and the founder of SSTI, formerly employed by FOI, said that the money used to start the company consisted of public funds from FOI, and is currently being investigated for breach of trust.

When the news broke, FOI hired PR firm Gullers Grupp, and ran a bill of 316,250 kronor there for “media analyses” and “communication advice”, according to TT.

The agency's communications head Pejler Carlsson is unwilling to discuss what exact advice they were given, but said it concerned both internal and external communication, when and how to present information.

News agency TT asked whether she's concerned that the agency's actions could be conceived as using tax money in an attempt to hide something from tax payers.

“I don't know if there is such a risk, but I think it's important for us to be able to get external help when extra need arises, as in this case.”

FOI's lack of communication during the scandal came in for heavy criticism. Several media sources wanted to interview the agency's head Jan-Olof Lind, but were met by constant refusals.

“We tried to work with our communication as best we could. The difficulty is that so much was confidential,” said Pejler Carlsson.

Several MPs are critical of FOI's decision to pay for external crisis management.

“I think it's completely horrible,” said Green Party MP Peter Rådberg to TT. Rådberg has previously criticised the way FOI has handled the Saudi arms deal.

“The former FOI boss, Lind, came to see us at the Riksdag's defence committee, and he didn't answer a single question. He just accounted for general matters. It was impossible to get anything out of the man,” Rådberg said.

Left Party MP Torbjörn Björlund was also critical of FOI's actions, and was unimpressed by the argument that the confidential information involved bound FOI's hands.

“That's just an excuse. I think it's cowardly to hide behind confidentiality. They can always find reasons to make something confidential; it's built on their own values. To me it feels like a way to escape responsibility,” Björlund said, and continued:

“If you tell the truth and take care to stick to the rules, you shouldn't need any external communications expertise.”

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