Putin op-ed: good PR or a betrayal of nation?

The thin red line for PR hit the headlines again this week when Ketchum sold in an op-ed to The New York Times by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The thin red line for PR hit the headlines again this week when Ketchum sold in an op-ed to The New York Times by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

As usual when PR hits the national news, the topic was positioned as a scenario where grimy spin doctors were wielding their dark arts to try and con an unsuspecting public. Ketchum drew opprobrium for both working with Russia in the first place, and also for the suggestion that it was they, not Putin, who actually wrote the piece.

When this topic last came up, it was said in some quarters that Ketchum should have been name-checked with the article for having sold in the piece – a ludicrous suggestion that would lead to dozens of articles in every publication having a PR credit if it was extended to its logical conclusion as a policy.

Let's get one thing straight: if you accept Ketchum is within its rights to take on a client such as the Russian Federation, then the Omnicom firm was simply doing its job. As the exposure and discussion following publication shows, an op-ed in the Times still carries more weight than almost any other media placement.

Critics of the Times said the piece was pure propaganda and shouldn't have been published. Certain politicians and commentators seemed apoplectic and almost moved to physical illness by the piece. They claimed it diminished the Times' place as the world's leading newspaper.

The Times responded by noting that Syria is one of the biggest contemporary global issues and that Putin is a central figure to that story. Senior editors pointed out that they didn't agree with many of the points raised in the piece, but they defended the right of those views to be heard. I'm sure no one wants the Times to turn into an old-school Soviet Pravda-style publication that only prints views with which its national government agrees.

And, whatever your political views, there's no denying the piece was well-argued and well-written. Almost too well-written... It was penned with a sharp and sophisticated eye for diplomatic and military nuance, with no trace of English being the second language of the author. Cynics would say it is far too well-written to have come from a PR firm.

Russia says Putin wrote the basic content of the piece, headlined by the Times “What Putin has to say to Americans about Syria”, and that it was then fleshed out by his assistants.

Would it have mattered if the piece was written by a PR firm anyway? We all know it is common practice for PR pros on the in-house and agency side to write opinion pieces for their senior executives or clients, and newspapers and magazines are full of such examples.

Much of the content that finds its way into publication is better for the input of smart communications advice and polish. The key to good writing like this is for it to appear as if it has come from the individual who is bylined. Indeed, it is well know that The New York Times won't accept material it doesn't believe was written by the individual bylined in the piece.

This brings me to the fundamental question of whether Ketchum should have taken on Russia as a client in the first place, and where the ethical red line lies for PR agencies.

It's not as though Russia is North Korea or Nazi Germany. It is a fully fledged member of the G8 group of the world's largest economies. It is a huge global player on the diplomatic front. On the other hand, it does not have a free press and it has some well-known anti-gay laws that have led to controversy over the upcoming Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.

If you are gay and work at Ketchum you're probably not thrilled about your agency representing a client like this, just as you wouldn't be if your agency represents Chick-fil-A when its president makes remarks decrying same-sex marriage.

There would no doubt be serious pause for thought, but a hard-headed senior commercial executive might say we are a global agency with offices all over the world and, on balance, a client such as Russia is a prestigious and lucrative piece of work we can't turn down.

This issue is coming up more and more often. Ultimately, it has to be down to the culture of the agency concerned and how comfortably certain clients or types of work sit with the employees of that firm – and the agency's other clients.

I'm sure every agency is watching the fallout from the Putin op-ed and fine-tuning its business practices accordingly. But, having taken on the account and when all is said and done, there's no doubt Ketchum did a good job in maximizing the impact of the op-ed via the placement in the Times.

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