By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Sept 12 In April 2011, then-Russian
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked an unusually flattering
question by an American journalist: "Are you the coolest man in
The interview, which ran on the website of Outdoor Life
magazine, was set up by Ketchum Inc., the U.S. public-relations
firm that has worked to burnish Russia's image since 2006.
On Thursday, Ketchum scored another public-relations coup:
It helped place a Putin commentary in opinion pages of The New
York Times, just as representatives from Russia and the United
States were beginning to meet in Geneva to negotiate a plan for
Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
The article made quite a splash in Washington. Putin
painted himself as a peacemaker and lectured the United States
for what he said was a tendency to use "brute force" in world
disputes. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said he was "insulted"
by the article, while the White House noted that Putin was
taking advantage of press freedoms unavailable in Russia.
Ketchum, a division of the Omnicom Group Inc., has
earned more than $25 million working for Russia, according to
documents filed with the U.S. Department of Justice. It also has
been paid more than $26 million since 2007 to promote Gazprom,
Russia's state-owned gas company.
In 2007, Ketchum successfully lobbied Time magazine to name
Putin its "Person of the Year," according to U.S. Justice
Department lobbying disclosure filings that show repeated
meetings between Ketchum representatives and Time staffers.
"He expanded his outsize - if not always benign - influence
on global affairs," Time wrote of Putin.
Meanwhile, Ketchum staffers urged the State Department to
soften its assessment of Russia's human-rights record that year,
according to lobbying records. The company has also reached out
to reporters who have written articles chronicling Russian
Russia's efforts to boost its image in U.S. media outlets
have come as the country has cracked down on human rights at
Ketchum also has encouraged reporters, including those at
Reuters, to write about Russian trade summits, technology
companies, golf and wrestling, as well as the 2014 Winter
Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
In response to questions from Reuters, Ketchum replied with
a general statement, saying that its work with the Russian
government has focused on "facilitating the relationship between
representatives of the Russian Federation and the Western media
and creating a broader dialogue."
Putin, who started his career in the KGB, was Russia's
president from 2000 to 2008, returning to the office last year
after four years as prime minister.
Since then, Russia has passed laws that, to many in the
United States, have seemed to echo policies from the Soviet era
of rigid government control of citizens' daily lives - and that
have created public-relations challenges for Ketchum, Russia's
promoter in America.
Putin's return has brought laws that restrict public
protests, limit nongovernmental groups and make it easier for
authorities to censor the Internet in Russia.
Russian media outlets have been pressured to fire editors
and reporters who criticize the government, according to the
U.S. State Department.
Anna Neistat, an associate director at Human Rights Watch,
questioned whether it was appropriate for a U.S. company to
advance the interests of a client that restricts human rights at
"An American company that does operate in a fairly free
democratic society should probably think twice before supporting
something like that," Neistat said. "From a personal
perspective, I of course find it quite appalling."
Ketchum has done substantial work for the U.S. government,
and came under some criticism in 2004 for producing prepackaged
news stories that did not disclose that they were
Ketchum also has faced criticism for placing pro-Russian
opinion pieces by seemingly independent writers in a range of
U.S. media outlets, according to ProPublica, an investigative
Other Ketchum clients have included FedEx, Absolut
, Mattel and Sony.
AN 'APPROPRIATE ACTIVITY'
Foreign governments are a substantial business for U.S.
lobbying and public-relations companies, industry analysts say,
and there's nothing illegal about representing countries that
have less-than-stellar human-rights records as long as the
companies provide detailed reports of their activities to the
"This is a very appropriate activity, and one that helps
advance peace and justice," said Roger Bolton, president of the
Arthur W. Page Society, an association of public-relations
"When public relations firms advise clients, they invariably
advocate for the importance of listening to and accommodating
others' views," he added.
That appeared to be part of the goal of Putin's opinion
piece in The New York Times.
Putin said the Syria crisis had prompted him to "speak
directly to the American people and their personal leaders," but
the article seemed to anger key parts of his audience.
Putin said the United States should work through the United
Nations to respond to a chemical attack in Syria last month that
the United States said had killed more than 1,400 people.
Putin's article did not mention that Russia has blocked the
United Nations from taking action against Syria, an ally of
Putin suggested that Syrian rebels, rather than the
government of President Bashar al-Assad, were responsible for
the chemical attack. Putin challenged President Barack Obama's
assertion that the United States, as an "exceptional" nation,
had a responsibility to take action against Assad for using
"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see
themselves as exceptional," Putin wrote.
That drew a sharp response from the White House.
"Russia offers a stark contrast that demonstrates why
America is exceptional. Unlike Russia, the United States stands
up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and
around the world," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
While, Boehner, the top Republican in Washington, said he
was "insulted" by Putin's article, other U.S. lawmakers also
weighed in with biting criticism.
Several foreign-policy analysts questioned whether Russia's
efforts through Ketchum were worth the money.
"Russia pours lots of money into these arrangements, all
aimed at dealing with an image problem in the West. But it's
unclear to me if there's much return on investment," said Andrew
Weiss, a Russia specialist who served under presidents Bill
Clinton and George H.W. Bush.