The New York Times Probes Ketchum’s Relationship with Putin

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By Patrick Coffee Comment

Oh, You!!

New York Times media reporter Ravi Somaiya wrote what might have seemed like the most important PR story to break over the long weekend: a look into Ketchum‘s relationship with its most (in)famous client, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

What did the article itself reveal, though?

Not a whole lot.

The reason for the piece, ostensibly, was Putin’s recent (alleged) aggression in Ukraine and the ways in which Russia’s declining relationship with the United States will change the nature of Ketchum’s work on the account.

As Somaiya wrote it:

“[Ketchum] must avoid being seen as defending acts contrary to American interests but continue to provide some luster for a lucrative, and even prestigious, client.”

Well, yes. From where we sit, it certainly seems like the firm made a wise decision in deploying Kathy Jeavons, head of the Russia account, to discuss it with Somaiya rather than declining to comment.

The takeaway here is that Russia hired Ketchum because it realized that it could not purchase enough positive coverage from journalists to make the country more attractive to outside investors. Jeavons notes that Ketchum focuses on economics, and a representative from the firm previously reaffirmed to us that it does not advise Mr. Putin on his relationships with other countries in the region.

In Jeavons’ words:

“Where we can help facilitate communication, at the end of the day that can only help…this is why I’m in this business. It’s not always perfect, not always black and white, but I think it helps.”

That’s a refreshingly honest assessment, but there’s a reason this article needed to be written. Simply put, Putin’s current actions in Ukraine (and it’s quite clear at this point that they are indeed intentional military actions) will have a dramatic effect on the way Western executives view the country he runs as a potential place to do business. This fact will also seriously complicate the work Ketchum performs in representing him. Here’s the article’s equivalent of a golden nugget, which will only surprise those still shocked by the fact that an American firm represents a client like Putin:

“During Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, there was a movement in Ketchum’s New York office to drop Russia as a client, according to a former Ketchum employee who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the firm. Those who expressed concern were placated by the Washington office, the employee said.”

We would expect more such resistance in the wake of Putin’s seeming determination to prove to the rest of the world that he doesn’t much care what they think.

The point is that the “members of the Russian leader’s inner circle” mentioned in the article are also consulting Mr. Putin on his actions in Ukraine — and it certainly looks like decisions that have already been made will seriously damage Russia’s reputation among foreign investors for the foreseeable future.

Politics and economics do not exist in a vaccum — and the challenge of compartmentalizing the two in order to maintain an ethical relationship with the client will almost certainly grow more difficult for Ketchum in the coming months.

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