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What’s the Risk? PR & Communication Agencies and Kleptocracy

Thomas Mayne

The PR industry presents a conundrum in the fight against money laundering and kleptocracy. This report by Thomas Mayne, published with the support of the Foreign Policy Centre, highlights several concerns about the role of UK PR and communication agencies when representing clients from kleptocratic jurisdictions, with risks to both industry and society.


“PR professionals have largely flown under the radar when it comes to the fight against dirty money and kleptocracy. However, this report shows how PR agents can play a key role in laundering the reputation of corrupt players from overseas and help them to establish networks within the UK. The flow of dirty money into the UK can have a deleterious effect on not only our financial centre, but also our political, charitable and educational sectors. There it is vital that we understand the risks and can mitigate against them. Hopefully this report will act as a starting point for that conversation within the PR world.” 

Tom Mayne, Research Fellow, University of Oxford


A short summary of report available here.


The public relations (PR) industry in the UK, which generates billions annually but is largely unregulated, presents a conundrum in the fight against money laundering and kleptocracy. PR can be deployed constructively, but its very nature – stressing the positive over the negative – means it can have damaging effects if utilised on behalf of disreputable clients. 


It can be key in the establishment of relationships and networks that aid authoritarian influencing:

– The PR agent can play a multiplicity of roles for the client, suggesting methods of influence and helping to establish networks by introducing the client to other professionals and influential individuals. 

– The path to being accepted within UK society, acquiring property, residency, and even citizenship, can be smoothed if an individual’s past can be laundered through PR activities which stress the value they can bring while whitewashing past misdeeds.

– Both individuals and companies can work with communication agencies and PR professionals to gain influence in our political system, with PR work overlapping with lobbying and public affairs firms. 

– These networks can become powerful systems in their own right, and can not only aid the flow of illicit funds from kleptocracies, but help such systems become entrenched through reputation laundering.


Anyone can set themselves up as a PR agent with no qualifications or expertise. Currently PR professionals are not required to perform any due diligence on their clients and, unlike regulated professionals, do not require any special training or qualification to perform public relations work. 


Without regulation, PR agents are guided by nothing but their own ethics, and the codes of conduct established by the existing professional bodies will have no impact on those who are not members of these bodies.


The report examines the risks posed by clients from kleptocracies and includes several case studies, including the scandal around the now defunct firm Bell Pottinger. 


It concludes by evaluating various measures that the PR industry could adopt to address these risks, including: Government or professional body regulation; more comprehensive registration of lobbyists and lobbying activity, including adoption of Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS); transparency of client list; adoption of ‘know your customer’ (KYC) due diligence checks; and reporting of suspicions to a law enforcement agency.


“I very much welcome this report and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to it. Responsible communication is an essential component of well-functioning democracy and that is what CIPR members are pledged to uphold through their commitment to our code of conduct.  However, most people who work in PR do not hold themselves accountable to any code of conduct. This report highlights the damaging effects this has as reputation laundering pulls Britain’s international trust ranking downwards.  If we don’t want to become a gangster paradise, we need to act.”

Alastair McCapra, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CPIR), a professional body for PR practitioners in the UK. 


“This report sheds light on the pivotal role of PR and communication agencies in combating kleptocracy and corruption. We need to convene a multi-stakeholder response to drive out the proceeds of corruption by raising awareness of the devastating impact that kleptocracy has on the lives of millions living in poverty. Tom Mayne’s insight offers actionable pathways for our industry, emphasising rigorous due diligence on new clients and aligning with responsible communication practices—a vital stride towards a better world.”

Farzana Baduel,  CEO  of Curzon PR


“Concerns about the role of PR agencies have cropped up time and again in our work at the nexus of transnational corruption and threats to media freedom, including Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs). We are delighted to support the publication of this timely report, which makes a constructive contribution to the debate on what steps the industry can take to protect itself, as well as wider society, from the risks posed by kleptocrats seeking to whitewash their reputations.”

Susan Coughtrie, Director of the Foreign Policy Centre, Co-Chair of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition


The report was funded by the Joffe Charitable Trust through a grant entitled ‘Providing the Evidence and Analysis for a UK Counter-Kleptocracy Strategy’ and administered through the Department of International Relations (DPIR), University of Oxford. Principal Investigator: Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Professor of the International Politics of Africa at the DPIR, University of Oxford. Co-Investigators: Thomas Mayne, Research Fellow, DPIR, University of Oxford; John Heathershaw, Professor of International Relations, University of Exeter.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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