The Winter Olympics in Sochi were hoped to be Russia’s own ‘coming out’ party, as the resurgent and confident Russia welcomed the rest of the world.
Despite the grand plans Russia has developed something of a PR problem in the Western media in the run up to Sochi, largely due to differing foreign policy priorities and an anti-gay agenda.
PR, though, is something Russia is taking increasingly seriously – both on a governmental level in spreading its message abroad and as a growing sector of the Russian economy itself.
The most recent figures from trade body AKOS suggested a rise of 17 per cent in the Russian PR market during 2012 to add to the high double-digit growth of the previous two years after the 2008 downturn.
Observers certainly argue that reputation management has moved up the food chain as it has done in the west.
"Many Russian companies are highly ambitious, world class businesses that realise the importance of communicating their story to all stakeholders in Russia and internationally," argues Andrew Hayes, CEO of London-based City agency Hudson Sandler, which specialises in Russian clients.
While outside perceptions of Russian business can lean on clichés of murky practices and widespread corruption, this stereotype owes more to the chaos of the early 1990s than conditions in modern Russia.
Stuart Leasor, senior adviser to Russian specialist EM, has seen dramatic changes in the country and its PR market. "Fifteen years ago someone who did PR was seen as someone who bought presents to give to VIPs," he remembers. "Now many companies have build up highly sophisticated PR and investor relations departments."
Large Russian firms typically handle a significant proportion of work in-house, but there is a vibrant agency market for both international clients looking to break the Russian market and Russian businesses trying to spread their message globally.
Most of the large network agencies have a presence in Russia, though most remain through partnerships, such as FleishmanHillard Vanguard and Ketchum Maslov (Ogilvy’s relationship with SPN ended in December and Edelman relaunched last year after shutting its joint venture Imageland Edelman in 2012).
Despite the evolution of the sector, Edelman’s Moscow general manager Kerry Irwin explains the country is still a developing PR market without a huge number of experienced senior-level PR people.
Andrey Barannikov, AKOS chairman and CEO of SPN Communications, adds PR and marketing functions are usually separate in Russia, meaning "PR and marketing strategies and activities are often ill-co-ordinated".
Irwin also notes some clients focus excessively on media relations and measuring ROI purely in terms of volume and AVEs, while some media titles stillexpect payment for articles. However, all of those spoken to by PRWeek emphasised that Russian businesses are now sensitive to charges of malpractice and corruption, with one source pointing to high levels of bureaucracy and safeguards actually complicating business in the region.
At the time of writing, whether Sochi (and later the FIFA World Cup in 2018) shakes off or reinforces the ‘Wild East’ cliché remains unclear. What is more certain is that with a growing middle class, educated workforce, strong tech infrastructure and solid GDP growth, Russia will continue on its path from emerging economy to firmly emerged.
"The Russian PR market is rather young, compared to Europe… so it is not so civilised, not so well-structured, not so transparent," concludes Barannikov. "But it would be a mistake to keep perceiving Russia, and the Russian PR industry, as a wild area with bears walking along the streets (or writing press releases)."