Reputation management by countries with difficult records

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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.”

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.

annmarie hordern on Twitter

MBS wants you to know he is in London. Someone told me all the billboard promos make it look like Riyadh, but with rain clouds 🇸🇦🌨….📸@hcsimos

Tell us what should be in the story


Ed Conway on Twitter

Ads praising MBS all along the M4 this morning. Are they targeted at Brits, or at the Crown Prince’s motorcade?

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 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“.

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”.

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