Reputation laundering? It will all come out in the wash.

What do Saudia Arabia, Rwanda, Russia, Sri Lanka and, er, Guernsey have in common?

 

Okay, I’ll tell you; all feature on a map in today’s Guardian of “UK PR firms’ current contracts with foreign governments”.

 

The thrust of the accompanying article is that London is supposedly adding a new claim to be world capital of all sorts of things by becoming the place for countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records to go for some “reputation laundering” (that is, help in improving their public image).

 

So how does Guernsey end up on the map? It so happens that I’m reading a book about the island at the moment and it does include, for example, an episode in which a young mother lies to the authorities about her identity, is shipped off to prison in a foreign country and is later brutally executed for springing to the defence of another inmate.

 

But those events relate to the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and I am pretty sure that’s not how they do things today.

 

But leaving all that aside, the Guardian does raise some really interesting questions. The first of these for me is whether I personally could work for a company that seeks to defend or deflect attention from a country’s human rights abuses. The answer is no by the way.

 

That’s me personally but Amnesty was asked to comment on the behaviour of such PR companies. The Guardian presumably expected us to condemn them but we declined. Why? Well, as distasteful as I may find it, if we at Amnesty are able to deploy our PR resources to argue against a country’s record then it too is entitled to do similar to defend itself. That’s freedom of expression.  It could also be argued that highlighting other more positive aspects to encourage tourism or other investment may in turn bring benefits for a country’s local population and open it up to more scrutiny.

 

Amnesty very rarely advocates boycotts but, of course, people will make their own minds up about whether they want to work with a company that also has some distinctly dodgy clients on its roster. The Public Relations Consultants Association’s voluntary code of conduct for the PR industry apparently says companies should refuse to act for a client that pursues activities that may be illegal, unethical or contrary to professional practice.

 

As the PRCA puts it so well, firms who work with countries that people may take issue with must accept the risk to their own reputation. Quite.      

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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