PUTIN THE PR INTO POLITICS
Reputation management is just as important in government as in business
News Russia is set to hire western PR firms to bolster its image abroad shouldn't come as a surprise. PR has long been part of the Kremlin's arsenal, whether executed at home or abroad.
From 2006 to 2014 Russia used PR firm Ketchum to help improve its image in western media. There were relatively few diplomatic disasters during his period, and with Europe relying on Russian energy, to ease it though a time of high demand, there was neither the desire, nor the need, for unnecessary conflict.
Russia's brand equity was riding as high as its gas prices. Hedge funds snapped up shares in Russian banks as oligarchs snapped up mansions in London. Russians were everywhere – in the top ski resorts and beach resorts, they were on the catwalk, in restaurants, and were even taking over the global art scene – Spasiba, Darya Abramovich!
And then, it was over. No more Mr Russian Nice Guy, no matter how good the GazPrommed central heating, there was sudden Siberian chill to the room.
The invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the resulting sanctions, led to a souring of the relationship between Russia and the EU, while the the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by polonium poisoning, and Russia's refusal to enforce extradition of the suspected murderers, spoiled relations with the UK.
Pussy Riot and gay bashing were civil rights fails for the Russian government, but backing Assad in Syria, and stirring up trouble for any country within a few thousand miles of the Russian border considering closer links with the west (Hello Montenegro – think you'll get away with joining Nato?), were greater affronts on western sensitivities, not to mention how people in the countries effected may have felt.
At a time when Russia really needed a good PR job, with people from the government explaining why they were doing the things they were getting critiqued for, they scaled back the charm, showed their gnashers, and banished goodwill to the back of the banya. Don't you want me baby? No!
Russia is thought to have spent over $100 million on PR from 2006-2014. And, according to figures in PR Week, the new contracts could be worth $30-50 million a year – a huge sum for any PR firms interested in a challenge.
'To err is human, to forgive is divine' – Alexander Pope's phrase provides a template for modern reputation management, playing up to our natural strengths (a desire to forgive and give people a second chance if they are sorry and prepared to change), and our natural weaknesses (we all makes mistakes.)
Earlier this year Russia hired Burson-Marsteller, an American PR firm, to help ease them through the doping scandal. Part of the approach was for Russia to apologise for its wrong doing in athletes taking drugs to give them a competitive advantage, and to show that they had fixed the problems to let them move on, and compete at the Olympics.
Russia may be prepared to invest money in PR, however, whether or not it works depends on whether the Russian government is really prepared to listen. And as any company that has suffered damage to its brand knows, repairing it is not easy. With the world scrutinising every move, confessions, and attempts to change need to be genuine if forgiveness is to be given.
You can’t white wash Red Square, but, if Russia and the West are to have a better relationship, Glasnost Version Two could be a step forward.