Soviet-Style PR: Firm Plants Positive Stories on Kremlin’s Behalf

A few weeks ago we reviewed the Communist Party’s unique approach to PR damage control; today we observe the ways in which the Party ensures positive coverage in foreign media outlets.

In short: they pay for it.

We’re not talking about traditional Party mouthpieces like Pravda and The People’s Daily. This matter concerns stories carried by familiar American media outlets like The Huffington Post and CNBC, which recently posted op-eds by “independent” businessmen proclaiming Russia to be “Europe’s Bright Light of Growth”, calling the government’s approach to the worldwide recession “a model of restraint” and naming Russia “the most dynamic place on the continent.”

An investigation by ProPublica, a research organization dedicated to facilitating “Journalism in the Public Interest”, found that Ketchum planted these complimentary pieces in order to improve Western perceptions of two-time Russian President Vladamir Putin’s government and the nation’s business culture. Ketchum, one of the world’s largest PR firms and PRWeek‘s 2012 agency of the year, has represented the Kremlin since 2006.

Ketchum’s filings with the US Justice Department reveal that, while the company’s employees did not write the stories themselves, they did reach out to the authors and arrange for the placement of their op-eds on prominent websites in order to encourage “foreign investments” in Russian companies.

These actions don’t violate the outlets’ policies regarding guest content, and a Ketchum spokeswoman told ProPublica that all company representatives “clearly state that we represent the Russian Federation” when corresponding with members of the media. The origin of these stories, however, would be news to the vast majority of those who read them–note that nothing on this page or this page hints at the fact that Ketchum commissioned or promoted the articles or that they were written with the interests of the Russian government in mind. An email pitching the second piece to the editors of the Huffington Post did not reveal the fact that the government is a Ketchum client.

Of course, the firm isn’t only interested in blog posts; Modern Russia, for example, is “an online forum that examines the economic and social modernization of Russia”, and supports the firm’s central message: Russia is no longer the Cold War land that American pop culture taught us to fear, and Western entrepreneurs should not let the politics of the past prevent them from investing in Russian businesses.

What do we think? Is Ketchum toeing an ethical line by soliciting articles on behalf of the Russian government and not revealing the nature of the relationship within the pieces themselves? Should the media outlets in question be expected to disclose this information, or is Ketchum simply performing brand journalism on its client’s behalf?