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Russia: G8 Presidency Spurs 'Exceptional' PR Response

"G8" vodka, specially produced by the Russian drinks maker, Dionis (file photo) (epa) MOSCOW, June 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In a bid to spruce up its image in the West for the remainder of its presidency of the G8, Russia has hired the U.S.-based PR agency Ketchum. RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg asked Peter Guilford, the cofounder of GPlus Europe, Ketchum's Brussels-based sister company, why the Kremlin felt it needed Western advice and what message Russia wants to get across before the leaders of the world's leading industrialized states meet at a G8 summit in St. Petersburg on July 15-17.

RFE/RL: When did Russia hire Ketchum?

Peter Guilford: They hired us around the beginning of April, after a long and thoroughly competitive selection process involving several agencies, which took place in New York and Moscow. But the decision to go out and hire an agency was taken towards the end of last year.

RFE/RL: What Russian policy issues has Ketchum been tasked to focus on?

"The G8 presidency is an exceptional opportunity and an exceptional year where they need an exceptional response."

Guilford: Our mandate is not to change Russian policy but to help on the presentational side, particularly in the context of Russia's presidency of the G8 during 2006. This is a time when the world press descends on Russia, the Russian story, and the G8 story. And Russia is fairly thinly resourced on the communications side, so they need a whole range of support: advice on how the Western media operates, logistical support, technical support, drafting materials, web materials, and things like that.

RFE/RL: What do you think prompted Russia to approach a Western PR agency?

Guilford: I think they realized that in the normal course of events they can do it themselves, but the G8 presidency is an exceptional opportunity and an exceptional year where they need an exceptional response. So they've decided to outsource a lot of the communications work, as much as anything to make the life of the Western press easier in the run-up to the St. Petersburg summit in July, and beyond.

The Fruits Of PR Labor

Russian President Vladimir Putin (ITAR-TASS)

RFE/RL: Has Ketchum's cooperation with Russia produced any tangible results so far?

Guilford: It's early days, and we're working pretty intensively because we're right in the run-up to the St. Petersburg summit, which is in just five weeks' time. But I think in terms of the advice we've given, in terms of the profile that Russian arguments have had in the media -- not propaganda, but just a balancing-out of stories about what Russia is doing in the G8 context -- I think some change can already be seen.

RFE/RL: Western leaders have often had harsh words for Russia, particularly over the past few months. How successful do you think Ketchum can be in improving Russia's image?

Guilford: It's true that in the media, there is perceived to be a difficult relationship between Russia and some of its global allies related to energy, Ukraine and other issues. I would argue that the media and public opinion in general should realize, in the broader perspective, that those are the exceptions to the rule, the rule being that Russia has pretty close relations with most of its G8 allies. And, in fact, Russia's priorities through the G8 -- coping with infectious diseases, eradicating illiteracy, promoting education, achieving energy security -- are all things that are totally in line with Western objectives. So I think their aim is to try and get the broader perspective across to the media at a time when the media is focusing a little too much on one or two bushfires that have recently erupted in the media over Russia.

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