Black PR still gray area in former USSR

Opinions are split on whether globalization is phasing out the practice in Eastern Europe

Opinions are split on whether globalization is phasing out the practice in Eastern Europe

A recent resolution from the Ukrainian Association of Public Relations (UAPR) condemning a black PR campaign (broadly speaking, the practice of paying journalists for coverage) has opened up debate among agencies that do business in the former Soviet Union as to whether that practice will become obsolete in an increasingly global economy.

For the first time in its history, the UAPR condemned what it called a black PR campaign by telecommunications company Altimo, which was allegedly designed to smear Norwegian rival Telenor and the country of Norway.

Telenor has submitted planning documents from Altimo to the UAPR, which it claims show various journalists were paid off - $4,000 for a story, in one instance - and that Altimo had a clear and deliberate strategy to destroy the reputation of its rival. Altimo, owned by Russian company Alfa, has insisted the documents are false and, in turn, accused Telenor of waging a smear campaign against its company.

Anna Galitsina, communications director for Telenor Russia, says she found it alarming to see Altimo's plan laid out in documents as a strategy.

"I'd say I was very surprised, and probably say I was shocked. In Russia we all hear about articles being paid for. We discussed it internally and discussed how we can expose them. We showed to Russian and western media,” Galitsina says. “There is such a big difference: Western media were surprised to see something to blatantly put on paper. Russian media said, 'This is nothing new. What is new here?'"

Yaryna Klyuchkovska, UAPR president, says the resolution was important to pass not because it brought attention to the Telenor/Altimo fight, but to the larger issue of black PR.

"In our opinion, PR has nothing to do with issuing misleading information. Black PR is something that we do not support," says Klyuchkovska. "A lot of people still think PR is about paying the media for stories. That is something we really want to change. There is still this old misconception."

Simon Brocklebank-Fowler,  managing partner of London-based, Altimo advisor Cubitt Consulting Limited says a Ukrainian Supreme Court has already ruled in this lawsuit.

"The allegations have been denied, and we are not going to comment further," Brocklebank-Fowler says. "The Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. Our client acts in accordance with the legal requirements in the countries in which it operates."

Some Western PR agencies that have outposts in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries think the paying-for-coverage practice is phasing out. Noam Gelfond, SVP at Ketchum's Washington office who has worked in Eastern Europe, says he did well there by getting stories placed in major media without money exchanging hands.

"From Ketchum's perspective, there is no question that Russia is committed to Western-style communications," Gelfond says. The agency is currently doing work for Russia's G8 presidency this year. "In our work with the Kremlin, together we have adhered to the literal meaning of 'earned media' by working strictly through traditional Western methods of earning the coverage without any 'quid pro quo,'" he says.

Tatiana Nikulshina, who runs Brodeur affiliate Pleon Russia, says there is strong competition in Russia to practice black PR, but her business doesn't.

"I am not doing this. I am doing real, professional work," Nikulshina says. "It is strange sometimes that we write three-page memos [advising clients] to not do this."

She says she believes that as soon as Russian companies enter other markets and sign partnerships, there will be "a clean market."

"It is necessary to act as an international company and have international standards," Nikulshina says. "You need to have one strategy and one approach."

Not everyone is optimistic about eliminating black PR, nor does everyone believe it is a misconception.

Rory Davenport, an SVP with Ogilvy PR in Washington, has extensive experience working with Russian companies. He says that the newspapers' and magazines' readers are savvy, and a good portion of average citizens know where loyalties on the part of a newspaper lie. He says when they read an article about a company - positive or negative - they understand the point of view, or biases, of the newspaper.

Davenport adds that while paid-for editorial coverage tends to solidify the base audience, a pile of negative, persuasive articles can affect people not as knowledgeable.

He says it's way too early to characterize black PR as "on its way out" in Russia.

"It's such an ingrained part of business," Davenport says. "Black PR is like advertising to them. Would you go without advertising if you were marketing a new product? It's in their DNA."

PBN Co. has been practicing public relations in the former Soviet Union since its infancy there and has offices in Moscow and Kiev.

Peter B. Necarsulmer, founder, chairman and CEO, says his company still regularly fights black PR; more so in the Ukraine, where journalists are paid less than in Russia and readers are accustomed to looking at any article as possible paid advertising.

"(Exposing black PR) is an important step," Necarsulmer says. "Ultimately, the PR professionals in the Ukraine and Russia who are promoting professionalism in the field need to stand up and sanction it. There are number of journalists who write regularly about this. It's a matter of time. The PR profession is one of the weakest in terms of policing itself; it has very limited self regulation."

Nikulshina says that a transformation to an industry that shuns black PR will make practitioners more proud of their work.

"I hope the market will be more transparent and ethical," she says. "Now, unfortunately, if someone asks me what I do, I avoid [a] direct answer."

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