Media: War of Words
PR organizations in Europe and the US are cashing in on supplying media advice to former Soviet states and Russia as the conflict moves to a new front - winning hearts and minds in the west.
It could be described as the spoils of war. Despite the global recession, the public relations industry is still earning revenue from a once-unlikely source - former Soviet states looking to win influence in the west. While Russia faced continued violence in other parts of the Caucasus earlier this month, the anniversary of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia passed relatively peacefully. But though there was little sound of gunfire, there was loud rhetoric exchanged in a battle that could help determine the future of the would-be breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even the South Ossetian and Abkhazian governments have now hired their own PR firm, Saylor Group, based in Pasadena, California.
The war between Moscow and Tbilisi is now largely being waged in the western media. In conflicts gone by, it might have been called propaganda, but it is now carefully co-ordinated public relations, devised by agencies in London, Washington and Brussels. Russia hired Ketchum three years ago, to work on burnishing its image ahead of its chairing of the G8 in St Petersburg, and it has continued to use the New York-based PR agency ever since. The hiring of the company, thought to be the first time Moscow had engaged a western PR firm, was seen by many as a sign of Russia's changing relationship with the west.
Ketchum has around 50 people working on the account in the G8 countries, and uses its fellow Omnicom agency GPlus in Brussels. In London, GPlus subcontracts to Portland, which is run by Tim Allan, the former No 10 spin doctor, and the BBC's former Moscow correspondent Angus Roxburgh, although the work is largely implementing US strategy, monitoring media coverage and dealing with the Russian embassy.
During the conflict, the Georgians used a Brussels-based agency, Aspect, run by a British expatriate, James Hunt, but have switched to Project Associates, a loose-knit London firm where David Cracknell, the former political editor of the Sunday Times, works on the account.
As with any client that signs a commercial contract, it is difficult to know how much each state has committed to PR in Britain. But in the US, where agencies have to register any contracts with foreign governments, it is more transparent. Georgia, for example, engaged the WPP-owned public affairs firm Public Strategies in February for $50,000 a month, and the Washington strategists Daniel Kunin and Gregory Maniatis, who will be paid euros 360,000 for a contract that runs until the end of the year. It also has consultants in Paris.
The Russians have paid Ketchum, and its affiliate The Washington Group, at least $14m (�8.5m) in the past three years, plus a further $5m to Gavin Anderson, the London financial PR firm, for representing the state gas giant Gazprom.
In recent weeks, the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have also been making their voices heard. Eduard Kokoity, the president of South Ossetia, and Sergei Bagapsh, the president of Abkhazia, penned a joint article that appeared in the Guardian, opining that the west had suffered a "moral failure" by refusing to recognise their independence and turning a blind eye to the actions of Georgia. The strategy appears to be a reminder that the regions are not simply pawns in a territorial contest but actual places with their own histories and cultures. They are paying Saylor Company, which has previously worked for governments including Ethiopia and Dubai, a $30,000 a month retainer (Mark Saylor, the former LA Times senior editor, charges up to $550 an hour). A recent report suggested the fee is being picked up by the Kremlin, an allegation denied by both states.
"Georgia has hired an army of western PR companies to ensure that the international debate over the future of our region is portrayed solely as a struggle between Georgia and Russia," says Christian Bzhania, a spokesman for Abkhazia.
Reports at the time suggested that Georgia won the PR battle during last year's conflict, positioning itself as a plucky pro-western country struggling against imperialist Russia. A Moscow-based journalist says that reporters were bombarded with up to 30 emails a day, as well as text messages, on the latest Russian "atrocities". Members of the media were invited to visit bombsites in Gori, which, it was claimed, the Russians were responsible for. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, usually seen flanked by an European Union flag, hosted international media calls and wrote opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal.
Russia did relatively little to court the media. "The Georgians had PRs on the ground and did an excellent job in rallying western countries to them irrespective of the facts," said one source, who described the use of PR during the conflict as "unique". As Peter Wilby pointed out in the Guardian at the time of the conflict: "The brief war in the Caucasus was a classic example of the situation outlined in Nick Davies's book Flat Earth News. Most newspapers hadn't a clue what was going on and lacked sufficient resources to find out. So skilfully presented PR was at a premium."
The loudest voice
Georgia continues to be the loudest voice. Like many in his government, Saakashvili was educated in the west and has a good command of the English language. He is described as "media savvy" and understands how to deal with the free press, despite allegations that he has cracked down on it at home, and journalists suggest that access in Tbilisi is good.
None of the PRs involved were prepared to discuss the relationship with their clients. But the Georgians, who rely on American and European aid and support, clearly have the most to gain from courting public opinion in the west. As one PR says: "Georgia wins when it is Russia versus Georgia. It is inevitable. Their approach is to have Saakashvili and Putin in the same sentence as much as possible. How much Putin hates him, wants to hang him by the balls. It is PR 101. Good v bad. Small v big. Freedom loving country against the bully Russia. Georgia is presented as a democratic white knight and a way to check Russia. They got that from day one."
Realpolitik has also played a part. "In Soviet times, nobody would have given a damn, but with economies much more integrated, it is critical to reach a wider audience and tell their stories. Elite opinion in the west makes a huge difference on how life will play out in these regions."
The Russians kept a relatively low profile during the first anniversary of the conflict. Ketchum's role is understood to consist mainly of facilitating access to key Russian figures and providing advice. Its list of activities over the past six months includes arranging interviews for Putin's press attache, Dmitry Peskov, with publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post, getting letters published on the gas dispute with Ukraine and handling interview requests for Dmitry Medvedev ahead of the presidential summit with Barack Obama.
The Russians seem to be most proactive when there are commercial issues, such as the gas dispute in Ukraine. They don't always take advice though, and their approach can hark back to Soviet days, as demonstrated by the apparent ham-fisted attempt to crack down on a Georgian blogger that resulted in Facebook crashing a few weeks ago. One observer notes: "PR is not a big part of being a frontline politician in Russia. Previously, the Russians would try to put their case across through diplomatic channels, but so much diplomacy now is through the media that they are coming to realise that making their case in the press is more important."
Or, as a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying last year: "We are like school children when it comes to using the media. But we are learning."