News Analysis: Russians stand by their man despite misgivings - The sinking of the Kursk and the fire atop Moscow’s massive broadcast tower have not only been human tragedies, but PR disasters for President Putin

The desperate but ultimately fruitless race to rescue the 118 crew members trapped on the Russian submarine Kursk has received mass media coverage on a global scale.

The desperate but ultimately fruitless race to rescue the 118 crew

members trapped on the Russian submarine Kursk has received mass media

coverage on a global scale.

Much has been made of Russia’s apparent unwillingness to seek help from

the Western world, while the global media’s portrayal of the

authorities’ reaction harks back to coverage of the communist


A nation turns to its leader in times of tragedy, and he, in turn, can

help the people through their trauma. But in Moscow, many commentators

have highlighted Kursk as a PR disaster for the President.

’The government has again lost the information initiative,’ says Boris

Makarenko, deputy general director of the Centre for Political


The Kursk tragedy has highlighted how far Russian society has come from

the days of communism, with citizens no longer afraid to speak against

their leaders. But from the government’s point of view, it also shows

how communications have some way to go to reach standards expected by


When the incident first occurred, information was initially concealed

from the media and the public for two days, reminding many of the

Chernobyl disaster - no doubt an extremely uncomfortable parallel for

the authorities.

’The vacuum of official information was quickly filled by comments,

guesses and rumours, which were naturally in a tone that was negative

for the authorities. Again we saw that our military are far from being

masters of PR. Some of them have a personal talent, but on the whole, as

before, they badly need the help of professionals,’ says Makarenko.

When information was finally made available, it was contradictory and

lacking in hard facts. In the eyes of the media this was perceived as


’The initial information from the Russian military was soothing, and the

scale of the disaster was understated,’ says Mikhail Taits, head of the

analysis department of the PR agency RIM.

Public focus soon shifted to attempts to rescue the submarine’s


Here the government’s apparent reticence to involve the West, without

any real explanation, not only meant several precious days were lost to

the men. It was also a disaster in terms of PR.

The Navy offered no answers to questions being asked about the rescue -

where are our divers? Why is modern technology not being used? Why

didn’t we do what the foreign rescuers are doing now?

’Conflict in the public mind was aroused because of the contrast between

the apparent ease of the task of rescuing the crew and the lamentable

outcome,’ says Taits.

Taits does believe that once the seriousness of the disaster had become

clear, the military and the government took the correct steps to inform

public opinion.

But others are unhappy with the role Putin has played. For one, he has

been heavily criticised for not cutting his holiday short once the

disaster was announced.

’The president should have flown to Severomorsk even for just two hours

at the very start of the disaster. His team had to reckon with the

consequences of the president’s extended holiday as seen from the

country’s point of view,’ says Yekaterina Yegorova, chairman of the

Nikkolo M Centre for Political Consultancy.

’You didn’t have to be a genius to foresee that the president would

suffer damage to his image because of his long silence. And in the end

he had to say something.’

Yet not everyone is so damning of the authorities response to the


’This military disaster is being used by some of the mass media to put

pressure on the president,’ says Vladimir Pyzin, general director of the

information and analysis agency Emissar.

’Some of the media are groundlessly whipping up the idea of hidden

political motives, playing on the feelings of the relatives of the

sailors with the aim of harming Putin’s reputation. PR experts will only

be able to make a final judgement about the situation after the reasons

for the disaster have been made clear,’ he says.

To a foreign observer, it is almost inconceivable that some would praise

the actions of the Russian navy spokesmen and other representatives of

the Russian authorities responsible for public relations. But not to a


Emissar is an independent organisation, while Pyzin describes himself as

a realist who understands the difficult path that Russia has followed

over the past 15 years, and recognise this as progress.

The impact on the public of the handling of the Kursk disaster is

revealed by a survey conducted by independent research centre ROMIR.

An estimated 60 per cent of Muscovites surveyed about the disaster were

dissatisfied with the completeness and objectivity of the information

coming from the president’s office and the government commission.

Yet a similar percentage remarked that their attitude to President Putin

after the disaster had not changed. Stranger still, three per cent said

their opinion of Putin had changed for the better.

It is only now that Putin and the Navy are taking what crisis management

experts would recognise as positive action: appearing on television with

victims’ families and organising tours for them at a Barents Sea

military base, for example.

Whether this will be enough to win back favour, both at home and abroad,

remains to be seen.

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