The Russian Sow’s Ear

Ian Pryde, founder and CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications (ESC) in Moscow, Adam Fuss, senior vice president of ESC North America, and Laura Mitchell, managing director of ESC North America, writing in the Moscow Times:

Ever since the young and energetic Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev became president, the issue of rebranding Russia has been actively discussed. In a Dec. 10 Moscow Times comment, “Rebranding Russia From Communism to Cool,” Andrej Krickovic and Steven Weber rightly highlighted the country’s totally unsuccessful efforts since 2005 to improve its image and reputation abroad. But even if implemented, their proposal to rebrand Russia based on eco-friendliness, multiculturalism and resilience is wedded to an outdated view of public relations, image and branding.

Throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, most so-called PR is a legacy of the old Communist “agitprop.” Russia does whatever it likes in internal politics, foreign policy and business, and then it utilizes the state’s loyal domestic media and employs PR agencies in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and London to try to fix its rotten reputation. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have tried this, but such measures are invariably short-term, uncoordinated and lack any long-term strategy. The failure to achieve immediate results invariably leads to disillusion on the part of stubborn government clients. At times, they seem almost willfully bent on creating a bad image. The U.S. and European PR approach of doing great things and boasting about them hasn’t made any headway anywhere in the CIS because no one understands it.

But even that angle doesn’t work these days. In this era of instant global communications, bad news from anywhere is flashed everywhere within seconds, often accompanied by video from mobile phones as Iran and China have realized all too well. And what Russia simply doesn’t understand is that you cannot create a world-class image, brand and reputation on bad news. And sadly, Russia has bad news in spades. For example, in a little more than three weeks, Russia has suffered the severe reputational blows of the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in jail, the Nevsky Express terrorist attack and the Perm fire tragedy.

This may have been a particularly unlucky cluster of image-ruining events, but ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international media have focused on issues such as vicious hazing in the military and the murders of bankers, businessmen, politicians, journalists and human rights activists. Foreign and domestic observers alike say Russia’s centuries-old problems of bureaucracy and corruption have ballooned since 2000.

The Western media have also had a field day with constant stories of boorish Russian behavior at home and abroad — for example, at the exclusive French ski resort Courchevel every winter and when children of Russian oligarchs gravely injured a 70-year-old German while racing their Lamborghini along a Swiss autobahn in late November.

The leading global media outlets will continue to point out the cronyism of Russian top business and its close connections with the Kremlin. But despite the lionization of the Russian megarich in magazines like Forbes, not one Russian company has created a global brand and few, if any, are well-known outside the investment community or Russia followers. And for all the reports about the fabulous wealth and spending of Russia’s oligarchs, none has created a “personality cult” and valuable trademark as Apple boss Steve Jobs or Virgin’s founder Richard Branson have done.

Russia’s bad PR rap should come as no surprise. After all, if the country’s PR at home is wholly inadequate, it makes sense that Russia can’t cut it internationally.

Russia’s bad image is a direct result of its deep systemic problems. Officials have been arrested for negligence in connection with the Perm nightclub fire, but the same negligence was the cause of a deadly fire at a retirement home in which the windows were barred and exits locked.

Russia’s problems are objective and widely known throughout the world. Therefore, attempts to rebrand the country as “eco-friendly” will be immediately negated by its appalling environmental record. A “multicultural” Russia will also fail given the country’s bad record on attacks against non-Russians — mainly people from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Finally, a “resilient” Russia is a big stretch. The outside world is more familiar with the image of a “long-suffering Russian people” — a society that is highly immobile socially and economically.

If this litany of problems looks like an anti-Russian rant, then Medvedev, Putin and millions of other Russians are also extremely “anti-Russian” as well. To their credit, in the aftermath of the Perm and Nevsky Express tragedies they have been very direct in openly criticizing Russian negligence and carelessness.

Nonetheless, over the past 18 years Russia’s appalling image has greatly reduced Moscow’s international influence and cost the country and its companies trillions of dollars in lost foreign direct investment and international sales. That’s why serious international media paid such little attention to Medvedev’s recent address to the nation. The assumption was that Russia is long on rhetoric but short on action, and Medvedev proved once again that this is correct.

Many foreigners living and working in Russia see the country and its people more positively than its awful global image would suggest. But Russia has no idea how to sell this at home or internationally and lacks the expertise and infrastructure to develop an overarching vision and mission for the country and the numerous government initiatives needed to implement that vision and mission.

Hiring expensive Western PR and lobby agencies lacking both excellent Russian and expertise on the country will not fix the problem. Buried deep in Medvedev’s November address to the nation was a little-noticed admission: “Nothing [in Russia] will change until we change ourselves.”

The Germans say “PR ist Chefsache” (PR is the boss’ direct responsibility). In a top-down society like Russia, there is only one person — or perhaps two — who can fix the problem. Putin (and Medvedev) have to lead from the front and make a serious and professional start on changing the country’s image. Only then can Russia’s rebranding begin.

One response to “The Russian Sow’s Ear

  1. Kremlin officials love to complain about “biased Western media” and “double standards” applied by Western politicians as the reason for Russia’s lousy image abroad. But in fact, they are quite happy about the harsh criticism in Western media. It allows them to tell the people in Russia how nasty the Western countries are, how much hate there is against their beloved Russia. This makes the ordinary Russians forget how miserable their life is and directs their anger against outside enemies.

    The authors are right. If the Kremlin would be interested to change Russia’s image, they would have to change their policy. And that means: to change it completely, which is simply impossible. But they are not at all interested in any improvement because a) USA, NATO and EU are an excellent scapegoat for their own shortcomings and b) they like to hire a new, expensive PR agency from time to time and receive nice kick-backs in return.

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