'Reputation laundering' ahead of a foreign visit

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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.”

We want your help reporting those previous occasions when host nations have helped burnish the credentials of visiting foreign leaders.

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Key instances we think are central to the story

  • From the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, to the genocide in East Timor, public relation firms have a long history of helping controversial leaders (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” industry (Guardian) – also known as “whitewashing” – with firms including Bell Pottinger and Portland Communications leading. 

Questions we’d like to ask

  • What are some of the more recent examples of controversial state visits where leaders promoted a positive image ahead of a foreign visit?
  • Out of these examples, can you share with us pictures of those adverts which depicted these leaders?
  • What was the reaction from the public during the visits?
  • Which other PR firms engage in “reputation-laundering”?

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