Countries count on comms during a war

Russia and Georgia have both hired PR firms to help tell their story and gain foreign support

With modern wars come modernized media outreach. The conflict between Russia and Georgia demonstrates that point, even in governments that are considered less advanced in international communications than say, the US or UK.

In a conflict that has captured the eyes of an international audience and strained US relations in the region, policy analysts and PR pros say the words of the governments, in some respects, carry farther than bullets. There is no doubt of the importance of the actions that each side has taken and the legions of history that led to the conflict, pitting a former Soviet nation against the current Russian military, but both sides see the value of communications and are trying to tell their side of the story. Both have hired US and European PR agencies.

The Russian Federation is aided by Ketchum and its European affiliate GPlus, while Accent Consulting in Europe and Orion Strategies in the US is helping Georgia. None of the firms responded to requests for comment except Ketchum, which only confirmed it is helping to arrange media interviews with Russian officials.

Clearly, both countries have a “narrative” they aim to tell: Russia claims it's responding to an unprovoked attack on the independent, though disputed, territory of South Ossetia; Georgia says it's the victim of a bullying Russia, using the dispute as a pretext to an attempted takeover of the Georgian territory. (At press time, Russia had pledged to pull back troops from Georgia to the South Ossetia line.)

Given that the conflict began with little warning, and that the areas in dispute are not easily reached by the media, the effectiveness in the two sides telling their stories matters a great deal, says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior director for policy programs at the German-Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank that focuses on US-European relations.

“This is part of warfare these days, that you get your story out,” says Kleine-Brockhoff, a former Washington bureau chief for the German weekly Die Zeit. “[Because this conflict] took off in only a few days, and it's hard to get [journalists] on the ground there, this type of spin is more important than in other conflicts, where there is... more advanced warning.”

Georgia probably has an easier story to tell than Russia, given Russia's relatively more aggressive military response, adds David Shapiro, a partner with Brunswick Group who is also a former Moscow correspondent for the McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

“When governments of countries undertake activities that damage their reputation in other parts of the world, it's hard for an agency to design a campaign that says, ‘Hey, they didn't really invade Georgia,'” Shapiro says.

In Western press, it does appear that Georgia is winning the minds of many. Though Georgia invaded South Ossetia, many in the US press are suggesting Russia's response was too quick, too calculated, and too much.

A DC-based public affairs executive with Russian clients, who spoke on background, says Georgia, despite its relatively small size, has gained a surprising amount of clout among Washington lawmakers and foreign policy experts, as well as with the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, for whom the conflict has become a campaign issue.

“It's really quite impressive, for a small country, how many vigorous and vocal advocates have been developed,” the executive says.

Russia is certainly showing some polish in its media outreach, including using Russian generals to brief journalists in person – something unheard of only a few years ago, Kleine-Brockhoff says. But given its relatively meager military might, Georgia must rely on outreach to turn international opinion in its favor in order to stop Russia, he adds. Certainly, President Mikheil Saakashvili has been seemingly ubiquitous in the international media.

“The Georgians have been completely reliant on telling their side of the story,” says Kleine-Brockhoff.

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