Public relations efforts and Russia’s image in the West

The end of the G8 summit also saw the partial completion of Russia’s first experiment with using leading Western PR firms to improve the image of the Russian state. Those who hired Ketchum have every reason to feel satisfied. In overall terms, however, Russia is still losing the media war.

The end of the G8 summit also saw the partial completion of Russia’s first experiment with using leading Western public relations firms to improve the image of the Russian state. The G8 summit organizing committee’s contract with Ketchum, an American firm, has not yet expired – but some results of this project are already evident, so we decided to take a look at the summit’s PR background. The experts we approached for comments say that those who hired Ketchum have every reason to feel satisfied. In overall terms, however, Russia is still losing the media war – and this will continue until work on Russia’s image becomes a continual process, rather than a series of one-off events.

Kremlin staff who took part in summit preparations sound slightly peeved: “Most of what is being attributed to Ketchum was actually done by us.” For example, no suggestions or advice from outsiders were involved in the decision to have almost all senior officials from the presidential administration and the government hold press briefings for the summit, open to journalists from all countries. As a result, journalists barely managed to keep up – moving from hall to hall in order to catch briefings by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, presidential affairs manager Vladimir Kozhin, and presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is said to have made a special trip to St. Petersburg, solely to hold his press briefing.

At the summit itself, the chief PR agent was certainly Vladimir Putin himself – no hired firm could have forced him to hold four press conferences in three days. Then again, giving the president advice wasn’t Ketchum’s task. The company’s primary concern was how Russia’s position would be presented in the West.

The Kremlin was able to appreciate the results of these efforts even before the summit. A senior Kremlin official told us: “Certain publications in the West are becoming more balanced. Their coverage of Russia used to be entirely negative – but look, now there’s a positive item for every negative item.”

Edward Lozansky, president of the Russia House consultancy in America: “A powerful campaign was launched in the Western press about 18 months ago, aimed at cancelling or boycotting the St. Petersburg summit. The organizers assumed that even if they couldn’t achieve those objectives, they would at least be able to do some damage to Putin, as the summit host. The Kremlin had to respond – so hiring Ketchum to ensure favorable media coverage of the G8 summit was the right decision. This company’s main achievement was a noticeable change from the almost entirely negative coverage of the Kremlin in the international media in the lead-up to the summit, to the objective or favorable articles about Russia that started appearing about six weeks before the summit.”

The organizers of a counter-campaign also recruited some leading PR agencies. The Times, for example, mentiones a British PR firm, APCO, in this context; its contracs have included providing media support services to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. However, APCO itself denies having any contracts for G8 summit counter-publicity.

Edward Lozansky: “Ketchum employs several hundred writers worldwide. This company uses its numerous connections in journalism and publishing circles, and it can influence editors. But no one will tell you exactly how many of the pro-Kremlin articles were written within the framework of contracts with Ketchum – that’s very much a commercial secret. Still, it’s clear that the company achieved its objective – and those who hired it ought to be satisfied.”

The exact sum paid to Ketchum for its services cannot be disclosed by the parties to the contract (it has been estimated at 4 million pounds). But Ketchum’s “wages” can’t be considered a complete secret, since the company was obliged to register the contract with the US Justice Department. When asked whether this money has been spent effectively, presidential administration staff stress that Ketchum was hired by the G8 summit organizing committee, not by the Kremlin, and not for general purposes, but for the specific purpose of PR for Russia’s G8 chairmanship, including the task of popularizing Russia’s chosen summit topics.

“We value the consulting and methodology services provided, but they cannot substitute for our own work,” says Dmitri Peskov, head of the G8 summit organizing committee’s media unit. In Peskov’s view, “the substantial experience we have gained will be a good supplement to existing practices,” but with regard to everything concerning Russia’s G8 chairmanship, “the bulk of the work was done by us.”

Ketchum itself does not intend to make any public evaluations of its work in Russia. “We are not inclined to comment on this work – besides, it hasn’t yet been completed,” says Mikhail Maslov, head of Maslov PR, Ketchum’s official representative in Russia.

Portland PR takes the same position. This company was established by Tim Allan, who formerly worked for British Prime Minister Tony Blair; Portland, like Ketchum, was hired to provide media support for Russia’s G8 chairmanship. “We respect our clients, and therefore maintain complete confidentiality regarding their information,” says Toby Orr, Portland’s client services manager.

However, some of the experts we approached for comments say that the reduction in criticism of Russia during the summit wasn’t due to the efforts of PR firms at all.

“I don’t know exactly what Ketchum did in terms of its contract with the Kremlin – I can only judge this by overall impressions from the G8 summit,” says Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. “St. Petersburg looked magnificent, but the fact that those who wanted to criticize the Russian president for ‘deviating’ from democracy and ‘rolling back’ reforms had barely any time to do so was largely due to events in the Middle East – they redirected the attention of summit participants and the world media. As far as I know, Ketchum had nothing to do with what is happening in Lebanon.”

James Jatras, a public relations and lobbying expert from Venable LLP in the United States, gives Ketchum’s efforts a “C” grade.

“At first, they responded well to negative commentary with letters to the editor,” says Jatras. “As the summit approached, however, the level of negative commentary increased, and Ketchum’s performance deteriorated. I was suprised by the lack of positive editorials in Western media outlets, and the fact that the general tone of reports on Russia wasn’t improving. However, Ketchum did organize Putin’s superb interview with NBC anchor Matt Lauer. In the end, even Russia’s numerous ill-wishers are forced to acknowledge, with regret, that the St. Petersburg summit was a great success for the Putin administration.”

Edward Lozansky: “Coverage of the St. Petersburg summit was a one-off project. What’s much more important is to provide a positive impression of Russia in the West, not related to any particular event. In overall terms, Russia is still losing the media war. The situation could be corrected – if only the Kremlin would understand that this needs to be an ongoing effort.”

A look at Western media coverage of the G8 summit supports Lozansky’s views. The Canadians, for example, said: “While the 2006 G8 Summit has been a resounding victory for Mr. Putin and his image-makers, its legacy for the rule of law, good governance and democracy appears slender.” But Ketchum isn’t to blame for that – as even those who hired the firm acknowledge.

“This project should not be associated with an image-boosting campaign,” says Peskov, stressing that Ketchum was primarily working to convey Russia’s position on the summit’s key topics to Western consumers. However, when asked whether using Western PR firms would now become common practice, Peskov replied evasively: “The decision to use Ketchum was made by the G8 summit organizing committee, which includes some presidential administration staff. Any decision concerning next year would be made in a different format.”

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