Analysis: PR gets trodden underfoot as sands shift in Ukraine

Nothing appears to illustrate the limits of PR when the chips are down like the sight of Vladimir Putin stamping Russia's 'hard power' boots on the ground.

Tensions: Russian soldiers guard a pier where two Ukrainian naval ships are moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)
Tensions: Russian soldiers guard a pier where two Ukrainian naval ships are moored, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

After all the calculated moves to soften the country’s image before it hosted the Winter Olympics last month, the Russian president has been throwing his weight around in response to Ukraine’s turn towards the West.
 
For those who trade in communication rather than military might, the turning of the wheel of power is resulting in upheaval.
 
Burson-Marsteller UK now finds its work with a think-tank that advocates closer ties between Ukraine and Europe suspended after the dramatic change of regime, which resulted from the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych after days of violent confrontations.
 
In Kiev, as some international agencies such as FleishmanHillard put up the shutters, a number of Ukrainian comms specialists who favour a pro-EU agenda are volunteering to deal with the international media in reaction to what they see as a propaganda offensive from Russia.
 
The Kremlin’s band of Western PR agencies are finding themselves under scrutiny at home, as when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. US-headquartered Ketchum, the global incumbent that started working for Russia in 2006, has distanced itself from its client’s actions over Ukraine, saying it does not work on foreign policy matters.
    
And with the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics opening today, Weber Shandwick’s work on it is being overshadowed by a political stand-off that has seen UK and European ministers boycott the Games and Ukraine’s sportspeople considering pulling out.
 
Lord Bell, the Bell Pottinger chairman who has represented several foreign governments, offers a sobering assessment of the relative importance of PR and PR agencies in the high-stakes game of diplomacy playing out around Ukraine and the prospect of its disintegration as Russia eyes its Eastern regions.
 
"PR has a very small role here amid the possibility that war could break out at any moment," he says. "To think that PR men can have any influence on [US Secretary of State] John Kerry, the heads of the EU and Putin is fanciful."
 
Nevertheless, media and messaging were prominent subjects aired by a roundtable of former ambassadors, business leaders and Russia experts convened by respected international affairs think-tank Chatham House this week.
 
Among the short-term responses recommended to the West are that EU members and the US "communicate a unified, tough and explicit commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and self-determination".
 
"It is also important that the West ramp up immediately its counter-narrative to the Russian propaganda operation," is another recommendation. "Statements by president Putin and other Russian leaders, and reporting by much of the Russian media… can easily be exposed as lies. This should be done publicly, forcefully and immediately."
 
Ukraine’s own pressing need for such a rebuttal operation was a key factor in the launch this week of the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, an apparently impromptu, volunteer comms operation intended to connect the global media to the country.
 
The launch came just less than two weeks after the formation of the post-Yanukovych interim government, which Russia refuses to recognise as legitimate, in the last week of February.
 
Alina Frolova, one of the 10 people co-ordinating the Centre, says it is against the action taken by Russia in relation to Ukraine; it believes the current government is legitimate and is in favour of closer relations with the EU.
 
Frolova says the centre’s management team includes Valeriy Chaly, a former deputy foreign minister of Ukraine, and is otherwise composed of owners or top management of local PR agencies. She herself is CEO of one called RAM 360.
 
"We are not providing services for government but see our main goal as helping to manage Ukraine’s image in the world and reacting to the information war against Ukraine," she says.

"We are trying to combine different type of speakers to provide journalists with different but objective points of view: governmental, experts, public activists, business, artists, et cetera."

The centre’s team has a news monitoring group to react to "false news" by collecting and providing proof to debunk it, she adds.

One such example she points to is a claim by a Russian TV station that 140,000 refugees from Ukraine were fleeing from chaos into Russia and the counter-explanation that the footage was actually of a queue at the border between Ukraine and Poland. More examples can be found on a website, www.stopfake.org.
 
"We clearly understand that our government is weak now, has a huge number of problems and has no time for information spread [sic]," she says.

"We all are patriots of our country and strongly believe in our future; that’s why we are ready to put our efforts as professionals now into helping our country to pass through this difficult period."

Whoever is communicating for the interim government faces an immense task, according to Sean Worth, a consultant at London-based boutique public affairs and government relations agency Quiller.
 
"The government will not gain confidence either locally or internationally until a while after elections take place," he says. "Russia recognising those elections is another issue. And all the while, the relationships of bigger players – the EU, the US and Russia – are of far more significance."
 
Ukraine’s relationship with its larger neighbours is complex. To risk oversimplifying the situation, it appears the previous regime had attempted to play them off against each other before coming unstuck.

When Yanukovych yielded to pressure from Russia to abandon a proposed free trade and political co-operation deal with the EU, known as the Association Agreement, the backlash on the streets led to his downfall.  
 
This aborted attempt to deepen Ukraine’s relationship with the West was where Burson-Marsteller, and two US lobbying agencies, came in.
 
According to a Burson-Marsteller spokesperson the agency worked for Yanukovych’s party, The Party of the Regions, between February and May 2012.  
 
The arrangement was criticised at the time by Martin Nunn, a British national who ran Whites Communication, a PR firm in Kiev, in a letter to the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK asking if B-M was in violation of the UK bribery act.
 
Nunn questioned whether the fact the agency’s Brussels office had been hired by The Party of the Regions to arrange interviews for government official Renat Kuzmin in London and Europe meant a civil servant was inappropriately getting PR benefit as a gift from the party.
 
From May 2012, according to the Burson-Marsteller spokesperson, the agency worked for a Brussels-based think-tank, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
 
ECFMU’s stated goal is to bring about closer ties between the EU and Ukraine and its managing director Ina Kirsch claimed it facilitated the preparation of the Association Agreement.
 
According to the agency spokesperson, B-M’s Brussels office worked for ECFMU until February 2013 while its UK office continued until two weeks ago, when the think-tank "put a hold on its work in the UK until the longer-term impact and effect of recent events becomes clearer".

The work involved "building links between UK policy-makers, experts and organisations and providing information from the ECFMU on Ukraine’s efforts to bring about democratic reform in line with European standards and advance its economic and diplomatic goals", according to the Burson-Marsteller spokesperson.
 
ECFMU appears to have had serious money to spend on lobbying, having handed a combined $790,000 in fees to Washington-based agencies Mercury and Podesta Group last year, though it is less clear who exactly the money came from.
 
The B-M spokesperson cited a policy of not commenting on client fees when PRWeek asked whether it was correct that its work had been worth £400,000, an unconfirmed figure cited by a public affairs industry source. Kirsch said she could not say exactly how much the agency received because she was not involved in any financial issues.
 
Kirsch says "the ECFMU itself has a very modest budget" and is staffed by volunteers. The EU Transparency Register confirms that the ECFMU’s budget in the year to November 2013 was €10,000 and that its costs directly related to representing interests to EU institutions in that period were less than €50,000.
 
However, Kirsch adds the ECFMU was able to hire PR agencies "with the help of sponsors from business, not politics, having an interest in progressing the European integration of Ukraine".
 
The Burson-Marsteller spokesperson says the agency is aware ECFMU is funded by "individuals and private companies who support stronger EU-Ukraine relations".

Podesta Group founder Tony Podesta told the Huffington Post this week that Yanukovych had earlier been on the side of the ECFMU’s backers, who come mainly from "the business community".

When Yanukovych rejected the EU pact in November he "switched sides away from the purpose of the centre [the ECFMU]", Podesta said. He added that "the situation in Ukraine continues to change, the supporters of the centre haven’t changed".

Kirsch tells PRWeek that no particular individuals are paying for Burson-Marsteller and none were involved with the previous Ukraine government.

"Different private companies were paying for the activities of the PR companies, charged with supporting the ECFMU in its efforts," she says. "There were no business linked to any member of government or parliament involved in sponsoring our activities. Once members of the board of the ECFMU were named to official positions they got removed immediately."

Kirsch admits the ECFMU has come in for criticism at home and abroad for its contact with the political elite, but points out that facilitating the Association Agreement would not have been possible without working closely with them.

She confirms B-M’s work has been put on hold while the ECFMU monitors the situation, but adds that her team "will continue helping EU institutions and the Ukrainian side as long as it serves the European integration process".

Meanwhile in Kiev, Frolova indicates she does not see the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre co-operating with ECFMU or any other institution because the centre has no plans to continue its role after the situation stabilises.

The question is when that will happen. Even without the external politics, the elections scheduled for May could spark internal battles, as happened in the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which forced an election in which a pro-European ticket ousted Yanukovych.

One figure who still resonates in the West and for whom Bell worked for a short time after the Orange Revolution is the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed in 2011 after losing an election to Yanukovych.

US politicians have been encouraged to pressure Ukraine for her release over the past two years by another Washington lobbying and law firm, Wiley Rein, which was reportedly paid more than $900,000 by her husband Olexsandr Tymoshenko.  

The new regime freed her last weekend and there is speculation she may make a political comeback. The Huffington Post has reported that Wiley Rein lobbyist Jim Slattery was planning to meet her in Dublin yesterday to discuss her next move.

PR may indeed get trodden underfoot when superpowers start throwing their weight around, but when the dust settles it may prove to have been a canny investment for some and Russia might find it has once again earned itself a bad reputation.

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.

News by email...