Gazprom Goes Shopping (again)

If you can’t jail ’em, kill ’em, and if you can’t do that, then buy ’em, that’s apparently the Kremlin’s philosophy. First, Gazprom went out and bought itself an ex-Chancellor of Germany, and now it’s gone out and got itself a British nuclear power PR maven:

Gazprom has hired a high-profile public relations director from Britain’s nuclear industry to spearhead its marketing efforts in London, a Gazprom spokesman said Tuesday.

Philip Dewhurst (pictured above left), formerly PR chief for British Nuclear Fuels, or BNFL, will face the task of countering the bad press that Gazprom received in the West during its standoff with Belarus over gas prices last month and a similar dispute with Ukraine a year ago.

The move may be part of a wider campaign to clean up the company’s name. Gazprom is offering a consortium of leading Western PR agencies at least $11 million for their services in 2007 as part of a three-year contract, Kommersant reported Tuesday. The consortium includes PBN Company, Hill & Knowlton and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the newspaper said.

Dewhurst’s experience in fending off attacks by environmental groups on BNFL could work to Gazprom’s advantage. The British branch of Greenpeace said in a statement posted on its web site that the company was “notorious for mismanagement, cover-ups and lies,” referring to its record before 2005.

Dewhurst, who worked for BNFL from 2001 until the end of last month, said Tuesday by telephone from London that BNFL’s publicity was “negative” when he started there but that the situation improved later because the company grew more transparent and was “talking to people.”

He started work as Gazprom Marketing and Trading’s first PR chief in London on Jan. 2, he said. A Gazprom spokesman in Moscow, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the appointment. Dewhurst was the best candidate who applied, he said.

Gazprom Marketing and Trading was founded in 1999 and currently has more than 100 staff, including at offices in Houston and Paris, Dewhurst said. The company, which acts for Gazprom in Europe and the United States, could open offices in Belgium and the Netherlands this year, he said.

Gazprom Marketing and Trading entered Britain’s gas market last year with its purchase of the supply businesses of Pennine Natural Gas, it said in a statement on its web site. It has also secured a management deal with Natural Gas Shipping Services, which will administer Gazprom’s supply business, and acquired the right to purchase the company, the statement said.

As well as opening up new markets for Gazprom, its London-based affiliate trades in carbon emissions and made the first deal last year, Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said he hoped to improve Gazprom’s image as a reliable energy supplier, which has been battered by the bruising pricing disputes it has been involved in over the last year.

“I think the way to do that is just to tell people that Gazprom has a very good record of working with the U.K.,” he said. “For example, Gazprom has supplied gas to the U.K. for 25 years and it’s been a very reliable and secure supplier. That’s the message we have to spell out.”

In the coming months, Dewhurst will try to arrange press opportunities with the company’s London executives, such as Gazprom Marketing and Trading CEO Vitaly Vasiliyev, he said. “I will arrange meetings for him to meet the British press because, when the journalists meet him, they will realize that he is a very good businessman and that Gazprom wants to trade with Europe and wants to trade with the U.K.,” he said. “And the message is that Europe has nothing to fear from Gazprom.”

A lot of criticism of Russia stems from the mistrust that the West developed during the Cold War, he said. “It takes a long time for these perceptions to die away,” he said.

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