November 20, 2012
PR for dictators
by Ariel Bogle
Ketchum, your garden variety global PR agency, is making a name for itself placing op-eds in influential media outlets for its client, Russia.
An investigative report by Justin Elliott at ProPublica details how a number of op-eds — touting Russia as a great place to do business — were in fact placed by Ketchum. He singles out two pieces by what appear to be independent analysts on the Huffington Post, “President Medvedev’s Project of Modernization”, and CNBC, “Russia—Europe’s Bright Light of Growth”.
According to Elliott,
“The columns, written by two businessmen, a lawyer, and an academic, heap praise on the Russian government for its “ambitious modernization strategy” and “enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” One of the CNBC opinion pieces, authored by an executive at a Moscow-based investment bank, concludes that “Russia may well be the most dynamic place on the continent.””
Justice Department foreign agent registration records show that the columns were placed by Ketchum.
Ketchum is one of the world’s largest PR companies, having worked for brands such as Barbie and IKEA, and they certainly get paid well to work for Russia.
“Russia, often criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, paid handsomely for the public-relations work. From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, according to foreign agent filings.”
Ketchum told Elliott that they always disclose their connection to the Russian government when talking with the media. Although, an email sent to the Huffington Post would appear to contradict that assertion. Reps for Ketchum said that emails prior to this one had established their ties with Russia, although they refused to release them.
Of course, it’s difficult for editors to comprehensively investigate the backgrounds and motives of their writers, especially one-time bloggers. As Sue Horton, op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times said, “people write op-eds because they have agendas. Separating out what’s an ethical agenda from an unethical agenda is really tough.”
In the case of the Huffington Post article, if Ketchum did disclose who they represent to the editors in earlier emails, there is no indication to readers of this fact. Which is problematic, either for Ketchum or the editors.
Ketchum’s tactics certainly are not new — see almost every pharmaceutical campaign. We can only hope that readers will be vigilant.
Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.