Spinning Dictatorship

l Group Project 2024-25


Small Group Project 2024-25

This project investigates authoritarian regimes hiring of public relations and lobbying firms (PRLF) in democracies. Previous research suggests that many autocrats draw on Western PRLFs to improve their image abroad and stifle criticism. Notable examples include “Tony Blair Associates,” employed to reshape Kazakh President Nazarbayev’s human rights narrative, and “Black, Manafort” which lobbied the US Congress for Zaire’s Mobutu and the Philippines’ Marcos. However, the chronic lack of data has impeded a systematic comprehension of how these firms operate in the democracies they seek to influence. 

With autocratic regimes expanding their foreign influence, this project lays the groundwork for interdisciplinary research into PLRF involvement and conducts a pilot study offering immediate insights into two pivotal questions:

1. Under what conditions do autocracies hire PRLFs in democracies?
2. What are the criteria by which autocracies select PRLFs? 

The project measures authoritarian regimes’ usage of PRLFs based in Europe and the United States at two junctures that are well documented. Combined with existing data on regime characteristics and firm-level information, this will allow for a first systematic data analyses. 

The project envisages three personal meetings between the principal investigators and an investigative journalist with expertise in navigating lobbying registers. The meetings and the pooling of expertise will ensure the development of an analysis framework and the preparation of an informed roadmap to retrieve systematic data on PRLF activities on behalf of authoritarian regimes across time and democratic target states. 

This project matches the ISRF’s mission to foster innovative research and nurture interdisciplinary expertise. By connecting political scientists with experts in investigative journalism and watchdog advocacy, the ISRF is endorsing an initiative set to revolutionize our understanding of extraterritorial authoritarian influence.

Contacting Fellows

If you would like to contact any of our Fellows to discuss their ISRF-funded work, please contact Dr Lars Cornelissen (Academic Editor) in the first instance, at [email protected].