Confessions of a Putin Spin Doctor

This publicist’s firm took millions from Russia to soften its image, but “we were utterly powerless to affect the way the Kremlin news machine works.”

The Daily Beast

Since 2006, Ketchum, a New York based public relations firm, has billed millions of dollars to the Kremlin to advise and assist Moscow with improving its image in the West. Now, when Russia’s reputation is at its lowest since the cold war, one former employee says the client is probably not getting its money’s worth.

If you go to the website for Ketchum, the Kremlin’s top PR firm in America, you won’t find many clues that the public relations powerhouse represents one of the more loathed regimes on the planet these days. In a section on the firm’s work, the website touts campaigns it has waged for Delta Airlines, Barbie dolls, Cottonelle toilet paper and Haagen-Dazs ice cream. But there is nothing however on Ketchum’s work on behalf of the Russian Federation or the state-owned energy concern, Gazprom.

According to the latest Foreign Agent Registration Act forms filed at the Justice Department, Ketchum billed Moscow for $1.5 million for the second half of 2013.

So what exactly is the Kremlin getting for that money? According to Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC reporter who worked on the Ketchum Russia account between 2006 and 2009, not much. In an interview, he said the Kremlin is definitely getting advice from their PR professionals in the West, it’s just that President Vladimir Putin almost always ignores it.

“He does his own PR,” Roxburgh said of Putin. “I can honestly think of nothing that Ketchum has ever done that has actually improved Russia's image.” Ketchum at one point claimed credit when Putin was named Time’s 2007 Person of the Year. But Roxburgh said the PR firm had nothing to do with it.

“If I sound jaundiced, it may be partly because I have just watched an hour of news on Russian TV, which is whipping up hysteria like I haven't witnessed since Soviet days,” Roxburgh added. “I can imagine my old Ketchum colleagues holding their heads in anguish -- oh, maybe not, since they don't speak Russian --but they are utterly powerless to affect the way the Kremlin news machine works. This is way, way, way, above even their inflated pay grade.”

Yes, Ketchum operates a website about Russia called “Thinkrussia.” But mostly, Roxburgh said, “Ketchum's work is all about providing press reviews, writing briefing notes for interviews and pressers, setting up foreign visits for ministers, and very occasionally getting an op-ed placed.” Other former Ketchum employees contacted by The Daily Beast confirmed this assessment.

Perhaps the most famous op-ed Ketchum placed was penned by Putin himself. In September, during the run-up to the near U.S. intervention in Syria, Putin urged President Obama to exercise caution (even as his own military was providing the Syrian regime with weapons and assistance in the country’s civil war). Putin even made an appeal to international law, a claim that appears more suspect after his own troops invaded Ukrainian territory this month following the legislature’s ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.

When asked by The Daily Beast about how Ketchum’s partners were reacting to their client’s invasion of Crimea, the firm’s senior vice president for external relations Dana Stambaugh said Ketchum was not at the moment counseling Putin about Ukraine or any other foreign policy.

“Our work continues to focus on supporting economic development and investment in the country and facilitating the relationship between representatives of the Russian Federation and the Western media,” she said in an e-mail. “We are not advising the Russian Federation on foreign policy, including the current situation in Ukraine.”

Roxburgh said Stambaugh’s statement has been a standard line from Ketchum for years. “That's their stock answer, and always has been,” he said. “The contract is supposedly aimed at making Russia more attractive as an investment destination, but of course that means helping them disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighboring countries, etc.”

Ketchum and a European PR agency known as GPlus first got the contract to represent Russia in 2006, on the eve of a summit hosted by Russia for the Group of Eight industrialized nations. In his 2011 book,The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Roxburgh writes that a Russian bank paid the initial contract with Ketchum, but the real client was the office of the Russian president.

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He writes that most of what Ketchum did for Putin was to provide public relations counsel. “We saw our main task as Kremlin advisers as a rather simple one: to teach the Russians about how the Western media operate and try to persuade them to adopt the best practices of government press relations,” he wrote.

At first, in 2006, he said Putin’s press team took the advice to heart and showed interest in studying how government PR was done in the West. But over time, Roxburgh said he began to think perhaps Putin was spending so lavishly on PR because he knew his government would need the help.

Roxburgh points to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, the radiation poisoning and murder of Alexander Litvinenko a month later, and the 2008 Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia as events that would be next to impossible to spin in the Western media. In this period, Roxburgh said Ketchum was receiving $1 million a month to provide PR consulting to Russia.

“As the Politkovskaya murder was followed by the Litvinenko murder, and then by the Russian invasion of Georgia, I began to wonder whether the very reason the Kremlin had decided to take on a Western PR agency was because they knew in advance that their image was about to nosedive,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, Roxburgh and Ketchum in this time period urged the Kremlin to open up more with western reporters in Moscow. He suggested Putin’s spokespeople take out reporters to lunch and get to the know them and offer government ministers for television interviews.

At first the Russians opened up, according to Roxburgh. But after the murder of Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who covered Putin’s brutal wars in Chechnya, the schmoozing and openness stopped. Roxburgh writes that Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s top spokesman, stopped the meetings. “He knew that whatever the formal topic of the briefing, journalists would end up asking about human rights and democracy,” he wrote. “Safer not to meet them.”

In addition to providing strategic advice, Ketchum in this period also arranged press conferences and monitored coverage of Russia for the Kremlin. The PR firm provided Putin’s successor after 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, with television training and other kinds of advice.

Russia did not only rely on Ketchum to soften its image in the West. Roxburgh in his book points to the creation in 2005 of Russia Today, which is now known as RT. He gave the state-funded television network credit at first for being more sophisticated than most Russian television, but he said during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, it lost much credibility when it became “a full blooded propagandist for the Kremlin.”

RT was founded by the Russian state owned news agency RIA Novosti, which has been around since the days of the Soviet Union. RIA Novosti, according to Roxburgh, had two roles: to provide pro-Russian news for foreign audiences but also to be a hub of Russian information for foreign journalists. That function clashed at times with Ketchum, Roxburgh wrote and at times Ketchum’s European partner would plan press conferences for Russian officials only to learn that RIA Novosti had beaten them to it.

But despite all of these services, Roxburgh in his period working for Ketchum said the Russians never heeded his basic advice: “Stop acting like the Soviet Union.” Regarding for example the Russian crackdowns in 2008 and 2009 against opposition parties, Roxburgh acidly observed in his book: “no amount of PR would lessen the damage done by a photograph of riot police beating up old ladies.”