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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/25/13

What Klutz Handles Putin's PR?

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When Russian president Vladimir Putin proposed a plan to avert American bombing of Syria, president Obama gave it a green light. But critics claim that was a big mistake. Putin has an ulterior motive they say.

But what if the exact same plan had been proposed by former president Jimmy Carter? Would he be suspected of evil intent, too? Of course not. The difference lies in the reputations of the two. Carter is viewed largely as a do-gooding former leader. Putin is thought of as a ruthless dictator who will stop at nothing.

It's worth asking what Putin has done to earn such a dark reputation. The answer lies in what's been revealed about him through the news media. For instance: he launched a brutal invasion of Georgia, cracked down on the free press that Yeltsin nurtured, and ordered the murder of reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London.

The problem with these and many other accusations is that they lack a factual basis. Indeed, as incredible as it may seem, the stories were fabrications of Putin's political enemies, such as the late Boris Berezovsky.

The facts show Georgia was the aggressor in the Georgia-Russia war, according to an EU investigation. There was no free press from the Yeltsin era for Putin to crack down on. Yeltsin-era laws precluded media business profitability and independence. The media never were free to just serve the needs of their audiences. And Litvinenko? In the almost seven years since his suspicious death, the London coroner has yet to rule whether or not the death was even a homicide. The story that Putin did it was concocted by Berezovsky as yet another way to damage Putin's reputation.

If the truth has been on Putin's side, how could his enemies have succeeded in destroying his reputation so thoroughly?

Putin's political enemies effectively weaponized the media to attack his reputation. That's how. They engaged in highly sophisticated media manipulation. And Putin put up no defense. He let them get away with it.

If this had been an actual military attack, there would be a top general charged with defending Russia's homeland. What about a media attack? Who's in charge? That would be Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary and communications director. He's in charge of Putin's PR. But, he's mounted no effective defense.

Perhaps Peskov is ill-prepared for the challenge. Maybe he simply does not know what to do or how to respond. Actually, a person in Peskov's position should not be personally expected to be a technical expert in complex reputational management and defense operations. But he should be tasked with bringing in competent help.

It is widely reported that Peskov turned to the American PR firm Ketchum for help. Some say Ketchum has been paid $40 million all told. Peskov has denied that. Privately I've been told Peskov believes that paying to protect Putin's image is a shameful thing. That's a counterproductive belief that he should abandon quickly.

But he'll need help that's up to the job. Ketchum has openly admitted to having placed Putin's famous op-ed in the New York Times. That's the one that gave Obama "friendly" advice about Syria, and questioned the idea of American "exceptionalism." That all turned into a fiasco. The whole thing blew up in their faces. And Putin caught the flack.

The problem with that op-ed initiative is twofold. First of all, Putin does not have the credibility with the American people or with their political leaders to be offering any kind of constructive advice. Given the widespread misconceptions about the Russian leader, it is ludicrous to think that his audience would regard his comments as anything but ridiculous.

The second issue is Putin's attack on American exceptionalism. That was an ill-chosen and inappropriate target. All that the usual rhetoric on "American exceptionalism" amounts to is an attempt by American leaders to help Americans feel good about themselves and their country. There's nothing wrong with that. Putin made the same kind of overture himself to Russians when he first ran for president. He offered to help Russians to feel better about themselves and about their country, especially after the troubling decade they had just lived through.

This technique is not used only by national leaders. Membership organizations use it. So do magazine editors. It's basically a means for promoting good feelings through a sense of solidarity among a constituency. Of course they don't all call it American exceptionalism. Each has its own term for it. But it's basically all the same process.

What I think Putin was really trying to get at, and what would have been a far more successful target for him, is the assertions of so many American political leaders that the United States has a manifest destiny to be the world's self-defined moral militia. That would have been a better target.

But now the net effect of Ketchum's deft work in placing that questionable op-ed is that Putin was subjected to widespread ridicule and criticism. Ketchum didn't make Putin look better. It made him look like he was virtually committing PR suicide.

Putin's reputation couldn't be worse now. For years, he has been maligned over and over again. At this point, if someone were to simply tell the truth about Putin, it would not be believed. It would be counterintuitive, given all the past misinformation. The situation is so bad that if Putin were to find a cure for cancer, he'd somehow be vilified for it.

Ketchum may have the capability for getting an op-ed placed in a major newspaper. But it certainly hasn't demonstrated that it is up to the challenge of dealing with Putin's reputational problems.

What a predicament that places Putin in. Peskov, his "general" for the defense of his reputation, is unprepared for such a technical job, he's reluctant to call in professional help, and when he does, he picks the wrong helpers.

Ever since Putin became Yeltsin's prime minister, I've studied carefully the media attacks that have beset him. I've identified the various methodologies that have been used. Frankly, the attacks have been very well done. They are timely, sophisticated, and highly effective. Neither Ketchum nor Peskov can match that expertise and sophistication.

There is a Russian and American initiative that I strongly endorse that has the capability to rehabilitate Putin's image and protect it from future attacks. It uses cutting-edge techniques, not old-time PR. I think this could remediate Putin's problem decisively.

But it's been hard to get this proposal past the palace guard, so to speak. And when finally brought to the attention of Putin, he had no response. Perhaps he has no positive expectations for it based on his past PR failures. But if he wants a changed reputational outcome, he'll have to consider the new approach.

The Sochi Olympics in February 2014 stand out as a prominent opportunity for doing further damage to Putin's reputation, not to mention how it could harm Russia's national interests in general.

Many of the past media attacks have been staged opportunistically. Some have occurred while Putin has been at highly-visible international events. One was even orchestrated on his birthday.

When it comes to opportunities for further tarnishing Putin's image, the Olympics are a real plum. Anti-Putin media manipulation is already underway in the windup toward February. And that's just the start.

Putin claims to have high hopes that the Olympics will contribute positively to Russia's international image. However, his political enemies very well may turn the tables on him once again and succeed at inflicting more harm.

If Putin seriously wants a good PR outcome from the Olympics, and hopes for the games to give Russia a boost internationally, time is running short. He's got to act decisively and address the currently dilapidated state of his international reputation in an efficacious way.

While the Olympics offer Putin's political enemies an opportunity to inflict further harm, they also offer Putin an opportunity to take a totally different approach to reputational management and remediation. I'm talking about something more cutting-edge than past efforts.

If Putin fails to seize this opportunity, the unfortunate consequences may stand out for all to see.

History is littered with conspicuous examples of how grave, unaddressed misunderstandings have led to tremendous calamities in the world.

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William Dunkerley is author of the books "Ukraine in the Crosshairs," "The Phony Litvinenko Murder, "Litvinenko Murder Case Solved," and "Medvedev's Media Affairs," published by Omnicom Press. Mr. Dunkerley also has authored several monographs (more...)

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