PR For Dictators

In the 1930s, the Nazis hired an American named Ivy Lee to improve relations between Hitler's government and Washington, until the deal provoked outrage and led to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.

If only Lee could see us now. According to Kevin McCauley, editor of O'Dwyer's Public Relations News—a leading industry publication—questionable regimes are seeking more and more PR help, in longer-term multi-million-dollar campaigns. From African despots to Central Asian autocrats, rulers with shady human-rights records are spending more to have their bad images burnished by savvy Western firms.

The latest prospective client is Belarussia President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who met this month to discuss representation with Britain's Tim Bell (the man who helped Margaret Thatcher get elected). Bell has his work cut out for him: Lukashenko was once quoted as saying, "Not everything connected with Hitler was bad." Spin that.