When Foreign Dictators Look for Good PR, They Look to London


If you wanted to, there’s a lot you could say right now about PR’s influence in the world of foreign affairs: Gaza, Putin, who is winning, who is losing, etc…but the most interesting question may be who is profiting?

“… [I]ncreasingly, governments look to PRs and lobbyists to give their image a scrub. What it is, is reputation laundering. What they are buying is a good image in political centres like Brussels and Washington, in the international and financial media and with investors. Governments and dictators will look overseas for this type of expertise, and London has become the place to go for it.”

London is profiting (to the tune of roughly £7.5 billion per year), and VICE UK’s Jack Gilbert is naming names: Bell Pottinger, Portland Communications, and more.

In a must-read article published today on VICE, Gilbert puts the hard questions to Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch (a PR watchdog organization) for an excellent expose.

Highlights after the jump.

Why London?

“This is partly due to the sophisticated nature of our PR industry, but also you have this secrecy in London that you don’t have to the same extent in, say, the US. In the States, there are regulations that are supposed to govern this type of work. Lobbying firms working in the US for foreign governments are required to register their activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). There is no equivalent in the UK.”

How is it done?

Access + Charm.

“It’s the PR’s job to charm and cajole journalists and commentators into promoting a positive message about a country. Some PRs have enormous power in the UK media, with many journalists dependent on them for information. PRs are often the gatekeepers to information. If a journalist pisses one of them off with a story, they may find their job becomes all but impossible.”


“The more shadowy side of the industry involves preventing people from reading bad things about you. It’s about suppressing information. This is a big part of what PRs do. So, for instance, they manipulate the online space to make finding critical content all but impossible. This is done by driving negative content down the Google rankings, relying on the fact that few of us regularly click beyond the first page of results. They create new positive content that fools the search engines into pushing the “dummy” content above the negative, hiding the articles they don’t want you to read.”


“They will also help come up with the alternative narrative that the client wants to promote. Bell Pottinger, for example, was hired by Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus – dubbed the last dictator in Europe – to help the country secure the lifting of EU sanctions by promoting the message that “Belarus is embarking on a journey of democratic change.”


“According to PRs, the first step of “crisis management” – as they call this type of work – is to find out what people are saying about the client. Firms have these mass surveillance systems that track everything from social media to the mainstream press. Bad mouth the client in 140 characters and chances are they will find it. So it’s about finding out what’s being said and by whom.”

For more on how PR firms justify this kind of work–and for specific examples of where they’ve stepped in to cover up or minimize genocide–head on over to VICE.

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