Inside Putin’s Secret Relationship with Western Public Relations Firms

For the past 17 years, Russia has spent more than $115 million on Western public relations firms.1 The U.S. holds swaying influence in 15 of the 20 largest public relations firms, globally. Ketchum, one of the 15, has commandeered the majority of the $115 million, and is U.S owned.1 Other firms, such as Alston & Bird and GPlus, have informed Russian media campaigning. For almost two decades, Russia has struck a balance in international relations: aggressively asserting dominance as an international hegemon, while maintaining a decent international image. Public relations (PR) firms are directly responsible for Russia’s ability to strike this balance. Taking a closer look at how that $115 million has been spent will provide insight into Russia’s public relations operations.

There is a direct correlation between Ketchum sponsored op-ed pieces and Russian financing. Ketchum, a member of the Omnicom Corporation, held a PR contract with Russia from 2006 to 2014.1 On its face, the contract consisted of Ketchum employees writing op-ed pieces in news agencies like CNBC and the Huffington Post.2 Ketchum received a combined $30 million between 2006 and 2012.2 In turn, Ketchum published several pieces praising Russia as a favorable environment for investments and economic development.2 Most pieces advertised Russia as “the most dynamic place on the continent”3 or praised Russian finance officers for “promoting small business, supporting families, and strengthening the country’s financial system”.4 Other pieces asserted that Russia was pursuing a “transformational vision for Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.”5

Ketchum subcontracts to Alston & Bird, providing an additional PR outlet for Russian propaganda.6 Ketchum, with its publicly advertised PR relationship with Russia, has had to register under the U.S.’ Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).7 This act requires entities who represent foreign interests in quasi-political capacities to disclose any pertinent information on activities and finances. In other words, the U.S. government requires PR firms to clearly outline their income and spending. Ketchum has a consultancy relationship with Alston & Bird. In a legal loophole, Alston & Bird has stated that it’s purpose is to “gather information and provide advice and analysis on various areas of international politics, and U.S. foreign and foreign economic policy, which will affect the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship.”7

After getting bombarded by criticism, Ketchum ended its public relationship with Russia, maintaining an advisory status.10 Publicly, Ketchum has attempted to distance itself from Russia because of the country’s controversial nature. However, Ketchum is still maintaining an advisory operation with the Russian government.10 In addition, most of the advising will focus on media promotion for Russia’s investing environment.10 However, Ketchum is transferring its previous prominent PR function to GPlus, another member of the Omnicom corporation. Officially, GPlus will “continue to operate under the terms of the contract” drawn between Ketchum and Russia.10

GPlus, Ketchum’s sister company, has had a PR relationship with Russia’s gas company – Gazprom for the past 11 years.8 Several of GPlus’s competitors estimate that this contract is worth between 3 million and 5 million euros.8 GPlus provides Gazprom with expert advisors and writers, including former European Union officials and journalists.8 In addition, GPlus has advised Russia’s media relations campaign through the Georgian crisis of 2008 and the Ukranian gas crisis of 2008.8 The Russian Federation also employs Gavin Anderson, with an estimated $5 million a year, for representing Gazprom. Russia employs firms like GPlus and Gazprom to gain sway in the European Union. Russian opinion on use of PR firms for issues on energy and incursion is simple: “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.”9

      1. Pasternack, Alex. “How Western PR Firms Quietly Push Putin’s Agenda.” Fast Company. July 05, 2017. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      2. Elliott, Justin. “From Russia with PR.” Propublica. September 12, 2013. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      3. Bond, Kingsmill, Chief Strategist, and Troika Dialog. “Bond: Russia—Europe’s Bright Light of Growth.” CNBC. April 01, 2010. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      4. Gerendasi, Peter, Managing Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Russia. “Gerendasi: Russia And The Emerging 7.” CNBC. March 12, 2010. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      5. Pabst, Adrian. “President Medvedev’s Project Of Modernization.” The Huffington Post. September 29, 2010. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      6. “Stealth Players: Who’s on Putin’s American Payroll?” March 05, 2014. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      7. “Russia hones new image among EU elite.” EUobserver. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      8. Teather, David. “PR groups cash in on Russian conflict.” The Guardian. August 23, 2009. Accessed October 11, 2017.
      9. PatrickCoffee. “Ketchum (Sort of, Not Really) Ends Its Relationship with Vladimir Putin.” – Adweek. March 12, 2015. Accessed October 11, 2017.
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