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Reputation management by countries with difficult records

The visit to the UK of Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, was accompanied by a carefully orchestrated campaign of advertisements depicting him as a reformist. Pro-Saudi messages were placed on London billboards and black taxis, vans, and in the pages of British newspapers. Meanwhile, demonstrators protested outside Downing Street over Saudi Arabia’s continuing involvement in Yemen’s war, accusing bin Salman of war crimes and calling him a “horrible dictator.”

The phenomenon of what the marketing industry might call “reputation management,” but which those who analyze countries with problematic histories call “reputation laundering,” is well known. From former Yugoslavia to post-Gulf War Kuwait and a wide range of autocratic states, the practice is well documented. We’d welcome your help in reporting on the industry or if you have examples of it coinciding with an official visit by leader.

Tell us what should be in the story


Key instances we think are central to the story

  • From the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, to the genocide in East Timor, public relations firms have a long history of helping controversial leadersΒ (Vice) improve their image abroad while overlooking displays of authoritarianism and atrocities.
  • London is said to be at the forefront of this so-called “reputation-laundering”Β industry (Guardian) – also known as “whitewashing“.

Questions we’d like to ask

  • What are examples of controversial states where leaders promoted a positive image ahead of a foreign visit?
  • Out of these examples, can you share with us pictures of those advertisements which depicted these leaders?
  • What was the reaction from the public during the visits?
  • Which other PR firms engage in “reputation-laundering” or as they would prefer, “reputation management”.

Add to this WikiProject


Talk (13)


Michael Gassner

"The advertising is in a way amusing a..."
Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales

"Yes. The correct neutral term for thi..."
Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales

"There having been no counter-argument..."
Peter Bale

Peter Bale

"I think it is clear now. It is also n..."

History for Story "Reputation management by countries with difficult records"

Select two items to compare revisions

12 March 2018

10:18:19, 12 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ cleaning up copy)

10 March 2018

22:26:05, 10 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Jimmy Wales (Updated β†’ )

09 March 2018

18:22:53, 09 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Peter Bale (Updated β†’ Reworked, gently)
14:20:08, 09 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ tweak)
13:20:57, 09 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ adding whitewashing link)

08 March 2018

15:00:38, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Ed Upright (Updated β†’ single quote marks in headline)
14:31:46, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Nora McDonald (Updated β†’ fixed typo in summary)
14:00:56, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Burhan Wazir (Updated β†’ updated)
13:23:04, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ permalink)
13:22:15, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ tweak)
13:21:33, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ removed hero)
12:24:00, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Burhan Wazir (Updated β†’ updated)
12:22:59, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Burhan Wazir (Updated β†’ updated)
12:00:00, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ edits)
11:57:45, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ edits)
11:56:45, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ made a wikiproject)
11:55:57, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ )
11:53:34, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ )
11:52:53, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ )
11:45:22, 08 Mar 2018 . .β€Ž Linh Nguyen (Updated β†’ )

Talk for Story "Reputation management by countries with difficult records"

Talk about this Story

  1. Rewrite

    The advertising is in a way amusing after decades of unprofessional PR of Saudi, thus creating the worst image country. Still not very professional imho, but at least a start…

    In regard to other sovereign states, there are a number of interesting/concerning cases, e.g. or the story of Kuwait during occupation.

  2. Rewrite

    Related issue, perhaps. Saudi Princess Reema appeared on Channel 4 news β€˜We are seeing cultural norms change’

    I found the timing somewhat convenient for all concerned.

    1. Rewrite

      It is related but not insidious since it was international women’s day and she was here with him and it is a fascinating and risky shift. No?

  3. Flagged as bias

    Hold on! The KSA paid for all those billboards with its own money. If there is anybody to criticise, it is the owners of the billboards.
    Don’t spray accusations without evidence.

    Peter Howard

    1. Rewrite

      One of the reasons we are looking at this is that some of the advertising was supported by the UK department of trade. That may be perfectly legitimate of course given that Saudi Arabia is a significant trading partner. Even if that is particularly for one of the strongest British manufacturing exports: arms.

  4. Rewrite

    This is what it is called in the industry and it is used as a quote. Some countries have challenging reputations which they seek to modify with lobbying and public relations activity. For example:

    1. Rewrite

      And to go a bit further….

      This story mentions unethical PR practices that go beyond just representing autocratic governments… things like “propaganda videos and fake Wikipedia entries”.

      My point is that the term is inherently pejorative.

      (To be clear, I’m a frequent critic personally of such practices and deplore them. But that’s a different matter from wanting to avoid, especially in requests for participation in a story, setting an angle from the outset that suggests something that, ideally, is only the result of evidentiary journalism rather than being the angle aimed at by our own preferences.)

    2. Rewrite

      This source you have provided supports the use of the term “reputation management”.

      The expression “reputation laundering” is, as far as I can tell, a UK-specific and highly pejorative term used to describe the practice of PR companies representing authoritarian governments. It doesn’t appear to be a term used in the industry as a matter of routine work – the neutral term would be “reputation management”.

    1. Rewrite

      There having been no counter-arguments I have changed the title in line with this discussion.

  5. Rewrite

    I recommend a more neutral title – in examining the activities around the visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the headline should not assume the conclusion – particularly in a wikiproject. A callout for help in writing a story about “reputation laundering” invites only evidence in support of that thesis. We must remain neutral.

    1. Rewrite

      I think it is clear now. It is also not specific to this visit and perhaps shouldn’t have been though it was particularly noticeable this time.
      There is an established phenomenon with which worth addressing when the advertising in this case has been so prominent and the visit of a Saudi “change agent” so prominent, that warrants being addressed. It is specific to countries which believe they need to counter bad publicity or historic bad reputations. But I think it is clear now.

      1. Rewrite

        Yes. The correct neutral term for this is reputation management. I have changed the title accordingly.

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