#6 - JRL 2009-234 - JRL Home
Moscow News
December 22, 2009
From Russia with attitude
By Anna Arutunyan

Russia Today is hitting the UK - but as the government's international TV channel launches an ad blitz in Foggy Albion, question marks still exist over how the Kremlin presents itself in an often hostile world.

In a provocative poster campaign, RT attacked traditional stereotypes, superimposing a TV camera over a rifle and a riot policeman over an angry thug, in a bid to paint an alternative picture of the world.

But PR and satellite TV channels cannot overcome the damage done by incidents such as the recent death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, according to Stephen Lock, deputy chief executive and regional director of MMD, a PR consultancy.

Considering the "prejudice in the Western media" and the fact that even positive events in Russia "are not fairly recorded," Lock said, "you're not going to make a meaningful dent" in Russia's image by simply hiring a PR firm.

Yet in recent years Russian authorities have been honing their message, PR specialists said.

"With each passing year the Kremlin and the White House are much more sophisticated and much more sensitive to public opinion and the need to not just take actions, but describe those actions," said Peter Necarsulmer, CEO of PR firm PBN.

RT's launch in 2005 kicked off Russia's image refinement with a 24-hour news channel offering a different take from Western TV.

Then, Russia signed up American PR firm Ketchum to promote its G8 presidency ahead of the St. Petersburg summit in July 2006.

An $845,000 agreement with the firm followed, to "provide public relations counsel, lobbying and media relations support," with a focus on Russia's investment climate and its accession to the World Trade Organisation, according to public records in the US Department of Justice.

Foreign media and political figures now meet with Russian officials at the annual Valdai International Discussion Club, which RIA Novosti, the current publisher of The Moscow News, launched in 2004.

But half a decade later, it's clear that PR campaigns cannot, by themselves, change decades of sceptical coverage of Russia.

"Because Russia's actions [such as the gas wars with Ukraine] create confusion, efforts to improve Russia's image are often destined to fail," said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Centre for Political Technologies.

That will not change overnight, said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. He praised efforts such as RT and the Valdai Club, but said that more was needed.

"Russia needs more dialogue, not ping-pong," he said. "In 2006, Ketchum was very successful in presenting the G8 presidency for the summit," he said. But because Russia set such broad, "simplistic" goals - that the West should love Russia and suddenly stop criticising it - they could not be achieved.

"What's missing in Russia is a sober understanding of why the perceptions of Russia in the West are like they are," Rahr said.

Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst, said that PR efforts were not to blame. "RT has a nice, professional team. They're not doing blatant propaganda," he said. "But actions speak for themselves. ... If Russia did not have alternative media, it would have a very nice image."

The government appears to understand this. When asked about measures to improve Russia's image, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was a "wide spectrum of work".

"These aren't single projects limited to one ministry but wide, ongoing efforts, and they should be continuous," said Peskov. "It's like pedalling a bicycle."

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