Back in April, when President Obama first met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in England, almost two-thirds of Americans back home were thinking negative thoughts of Russia. Now, as Obama's Moscow meeting with Medvedev approaches, the Kremlin is showing new concern about Russia's image abroad. Indeed, the issue of external PR has been elevated by making it the responsibility of Sergei Naryshkin - Russia's presidential chief of staff.
What can Naryshkin possibly do to bring about a change in America's negative views of Russia? Is simply putting a better spin on things really going to change anyone's mind about anything?
The answer is that it just might -- if it is done right. I've carefully studied the ups and downs of American attitudes toward Russia over the years. What I found is there seems to be a responsive relationship between attitudinal change and three external factors: (1) leadership initiatives, (2) geopolitical events, (3) organized, negative PR attacks.
Here are a few illustrations.
In early 2001, Russia was viewed favorably by just over 50 percent of Americans. Then, following 9/11, and then-president Vladimir Putin's demonstrable overtures of support for America, Russia's favorability rating jumped to 66 percent. But a leadership initiative can influence opinions negatively, too. Take for example President Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech of 1983. Before the speech, the favorable rating of the Soviet Union had been riding just over 20 percent. Following that speech, only 8 percent of Americans maintained a favorable opinion. It took 4 long years before opinions rebounded.
In terms of geopolitical events, the ending of the Soviet Union caused an upward spike in favorable opinion to 66 percent. The 1999 conflict in Kosovo seems responsible for a dip down to 33 percent.
The impact of negative PR attacks can be seen in the past several years. There was a volley of assaults, most notably involving the murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko, Russia's actions to collect overdue gas bills from Ukraine, and the Georgian war in August 2008. That saw Russia's favorability rating ratchet down from 58 percent at the start of 2006 to a low of 40 percent at the start of this year.
I did an in-depth study on the Litvinenko media coverage, and presented my findings at the International Federation of Journalists World Congress in Moscow during 2007. What I found was that the predominant theme of the world media coverage had no apparent basis in fact, and seems to have been manufactured and propagated by a disgruntled Russian tycoon who lives abroad. (My report can be viewed at: www.publishinghelp.com/rp091.)
As for the other PR attacks, I don't know who was responsible, except that it is widely regarded that the Georgian administration had engaged a Western PR firm to manage the story. That may explain why the "Russia Invades Georgia" headline predominated, and "Georgia Invades South Ossetia" had no traction.
It's not only the Kremlin that falls victim to PR assaults in Russia. It was about 3 years ago that Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, was subjected to a negative PR attack. On a single day, three major Russian newspapers ran stories alleging that Telenor was part of a NATO plot against Russia. The stories each had a slightly different slant, and were bylined by three different pseudonyms. One of the pseudonyms was a name that strongly resembled the name of one of the executives of Telenor's PR firm, the perpetrators apparently adding insult to injury.
The data above on Russia's favorability with Americans comes from Gallup polls conducted over the years. The up and down swings in American attitudes can best be understood by examining them graphically. Thus, I've prepared a bar chart that you can see at the following address: www.publishinghelp.com/gp091. It shows the dates of the Gallup polls and the percentage of Americans reporting positive attitudes. I've also annotated the chart by suggesting events that may have been influential at times when opinions changed.
You can see that since the start of the Russian Federation, the country has been viewed favorably by as few as one third of Americans, and as many as two thirds. So, it looks like one-third is in play. The organized, negative PR may have contributed to an almost 20 point drop from early 2006 (pre-Politkovskaya et al) to early 2009 (post Georgian war). With the U.S. adult population being around 228 million, the 20 percent drop represents 46 million people.
Now, we know what Naryshkin is up against. But, how is he going to have an impact, even if he plays his cards right? The good news for him is that there is lots of evidence that American attitudes toward Russia are malleable. What's more, a Pew Research Center study in 2007 found that it is older Americans who have the most negative views of Russia. Twice as many people over 50 were found to harbor negative opinions than those aged 30 and younger. Thus, if Naryshkin does nothing, things will get better as the older folks fade from the scene.
Proactively seeking to improve Russia's image will require more skill, however. I understand that there's a plan that was hatched within the RIA Novosti news agency in Russia that uses a news and expert syndication approach to the problem. It seems to have considerable promise.
But then along comes a new Telenor scandal. Russian bailiffs are now asserting that they're going to sell off Telenor's shares in VimpleCom, the Russian mobile phone provider. The proceeds will be used to pay off a yet-to-be appealed fine levied against Telenor from a dispute with another company. Foreign investors are viewing the government action as a heavy-handed intrusion.
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