The fact that Ketchum pitched Vladimir Putin’s controversial New York Times op-ed on Syria isn’t breaking news: We’ve already established, via ProPublica, that Ketchum places pro-Putin op-eds written by “independent businessmen” in publications like The Huffington Post and CNBC. Yet unlike those posts, this one was quite clear in its intentions, and the Times apparently handled it much like any other pitch. Op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal writes:
“I thought it was well-written, well-argued. I don’t agree with many of the points in it, but that is irrelevant.”
Critics pounced immediately, writing that the Times was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States” by running the op-ed. This is obviously not true, as Times public editor Margaret Sullivan notes that publication is “not an endorsement of [Putin] or his ideas” and that he didn’t get paid. Still, one reader who may or may not be this guy asks why the NYT doesn’t “…take issue with the fact that it was so obviously penned by Putin’s flacks.”
Was it? Putin’s spokesman now claims that the man himself wrote “the basic content” and that his “assistants” fleshed it out—but what about Ketchum?
General consensus calls the successful pitch “a PR coup” for Putin, but it’s led some in the industry to raise ethical issues:
— Kelli Matthews (@kmatthews) September 12, 2013
I see no issues with PR firms working for foreign governments. The issue is helping them communicate something demonstrably false. — Jeremy Mullman (@jeremymullman) September 12, 2013
— Tim – Pittsburgh PR (@OBrienPR) September 12, 2013
— Drew Wilson (@drewwilson12) September 12, 2013
Henry Blodget approves of a pitch well done:
The fact remains that the article is a clear attempt to deflect blame from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a dictator unlikely to win any popularity contests inside his own country or anywhere else in the world. And its accuracy is highly disputed: the issue isn’t so much what Putin put in but what he left out.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch quickly published a rebuttal today, noting that Putin didn’t mention the fact that his government has provided Assad with arms for years or that repeated reports by the United Nations and assorted human rights groups have attributed the “deliberate and indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians” to Assad’s government. This is especially amusing considering the fact that Putin’s op-ed argues that the UN will lose its credibility if President Obama decides to attack without international approval. Another big contradiction: Putin claims that it wasn’t Assad who used chemical weapons, then praises the Syrian government’s newfound willingness to “place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction.”
Sure, this is nothing new, but as Drew Wilson points out in his tweet above, PR is rarely portrayed positively—and this story certainly won’t change that fact. We have a feeling more than one pundit is writing a follow-up article right now, and it’s a great subject for debate.
Public relations may be one of the world’s “most misunderstood” jobs, but “Hey mom, today I successfully pitched an op-ed by the leader of Communist Russia in which he defends his dictator ally to one of America’s most influential publications!” is pretty easy to understand.