As G-8 leader, Russia works to recast image

June 30, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- Russia's debut as president of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations did not go well. On the January day it assumed the group's rotating presidency, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to neighboring Ukraine, prompting charges that Moscow was using energy as a political weapon.

Even the Kremlin concedes it could have handled the situation better - though not the way one might think.

"We explained our point of view then, but no one listened to us," Dmitry Peskov, deputy press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin, told the newspaper Vedomosti at the time. "Maybe if we had worked then with a major PR agency, it would have all turned out differently."

That line of thinking is why, when Russia welcomes President Bush and the other G-8 leaders next month in St. Petersburg, it will do so with the help of an American public relations firm.

New York-based Ketchum, a unit of the Omnicom Group and a firm whose clients include FedEx, Pepsi and other companies with well-known brands, is leading a multiagency team advising Russia on how to polish and present its message to the press and the world.

Russia's stated intent is to communicate more openly and with less reluctance than usual. By hiring Ketchum, Russia is acknowledging a problem with its image and attempting to change it.

"Russia is conscious of the fact that an opportunity like this does not come along often," said Noam Gelfond, the Ketchum senior vice president overseeing the G-8 contract, in an interview from Washington. "It's a high-profile country at a particularly sensitized time."

Ketchum will help "make sure that the experience that people have at the summit is one - to be frank - that does help improve the overall image of Russia as a reliable and responsible partner."

It is a tall order. While Russia's G-8 chairmanship brings prestige, it also brings a bright spotlight, including thousands of reporters. In the Kremlin's view, though, the press is almost always a force more to be contained and controlled than to be allowed to work as an outlet for divergent views.

This year has brought a succession of public relations problems, each followed by a defensive Kremlin response. After the temporary cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine, Russia faced criticism for restricting the activities of nongovernmental groups. Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Russia for using its natural resources as "tools of intimidation and blackmail." Days later, journalists at a world newspaper congress complained about government efforts to stifle the press.

This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers urged Bush and fellow leaders in the G-8 to rebuke Russia for steering the nation "toward authoritarianism" and to consider holding a separate meeting without Putin.

Typically, Russia does not receive outside advice or constructive criticism with anything short of scorn. The hiring of Ketchum - which will oversee the work of teams in nine countries to meet the demands of a 24-hour news cycle - marks the first time it has turned to a professional firm for help. Neither party would disclose how much the Kremlin is paying.

"Maybe we're not so proactive in making our views heard," Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, suggested in an interview. "Some people, some opinion-makers, some journalists in the West, they're still unfortunately thinking of the old stereotypes. They just got used to thinking of Russia as a confrontational country.

"They just got used to thinking about Russia as a country with only something bad inside," he said. "They got used to thinking [that] any decision made by the president jeopardizes democracy and human rights."

In other words, it's not Russia's fault.

"We have lots and lots of stories that are misinterpreted in the West," Peskov said. "It is unfortunate to treat a country only in the black color, because pure black does not exist in nature. Every country is a mixture of black and white."

Mikhail A. Maslov, senior partner of Ketchum's affiliate in Moscow, unintentionally provided evidence of Russia's anxious relationship with the foreign press. He could not grant an interview, he said, without first getting permission from the presidential administration. Permission granted, he later offered that a country's "brand" was as important as a corporation's.

"Russia and Moscow are still associated with gangster shootouts in the streets and bears dancing in Red Square," he said. "There is not a whole lot of understanding and knowledge of what's happening here."

Maslov drew a comparison with the time of the Cold War, when he said Russians knew of the United States only what they learned through state television. He recalled watching Depression-era film clips of people standing in long lines outside soup kitchens - a symbol of the nation's desperation - but learned nothing of American advancements in science, technology and other spheres.

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