It seems as though our obsession with image over substance in the West has not gone unnoticed by the world’s autocrats and dictators. As the Guardian has reported, London has become a major center for PR firms employed by states with, let’s say, not quite commendable human rights records who want to be seen as progressive, stable democracies (without actually having to go through the headache of becoming an actual democracy). And its working.

Rwanda, where in the run up to this month’s election the opposition has been contending with threats and assassinations, is perhaps the biggest PR coup. Sure journalists may be getting murdered and opposition leaders are being gunned down, but President Kagame has a Twitter and Facebook account, so surely he must be a progressive, forward thinking kind of guy, right? Most Western governments—including the US and UK—seem to think so.

The absurdity of the situation is not limited to Rwanda, though. As Francis Ingham of Public Relations Consultants Association says, “Autocratic governments are realising they need to be more sophisticated in the way they act rather than just telling people how it is.” Because God forbid a government should tell people “how it is”! Apparently Ingham’s idea of sophistication is as follows: say you’re a government whose members have been accused of war crimes and genocide. You may think the “sophisticated” thing to do would be to hand over those members to an international tribunal to face justice for the crimes they’ve been accused of and for the government to look into how to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Well, if that’s how you’re thinking, then you’re probably not working in PR. The better thing to do is to pretend that such crimes never happened and instead stick to those happy sounding talking points like peace, prosperity, and enterprise, just as Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa did in an article that was pitched to the Guardian by PR group Bell Pottinger: “We are ready to engage positively with anyone and everyone around the world who wishes to help us achieve our dream of a united and prosperous land and enable Sri Lanka to take its rightful place in the world as an island of unsurpassed beauty, enterprise and now peace.” Unfortunately, a UN war crimes investigation doesn’t quite fit into Rajapaksa’s PR message of peace and prosperity.


According to the BBC, Transparency International (TI) has given Rwanda a bribery prevalence of 6.6%, the lowest in East Africa. Good news, right? Not really. All this report goes to show is that any measure of corruption is inevitably a mug’s game. Corruption, by its very nature, is hidden and, thus, impossible to measure. While bribery may be down, that does not mean an overall reduction in political corruption or the abuse of power. As the article goes on to state, Rwanda ranks so low because it is, in effect, a police state where power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of President Kagame. And with allies like the US, UK, and powerful lobbyists in Washington, Kagame has faced almost no criticism from Western leaders. This despite the fact that the run-up to the presidential election in August has seen Kagame clamp down on dissent to the point that one journalist, critical of the regime, was assassinated last month. So for TI to come out and give the impression that Rwanda’s leaders deserve praise, and for the BBC to run a headline as misleading as “Rwanda almost ‘corruption free’,” just adds fuel to an already dangerous situation.