Arun Sudhaman 13 Sep 2013 // 5:12PM GMT
Vladimir Putin's op-ed in the New York Times has, understandably, attracted plenty of attention. Deploying some classic communication tactics and an understated, conversational tone, the Russian President lays out his case against an invasion of Syria, causing some to hail the column as a 'PR masterstroke'. Unsurprisingly, Ketchum's role in the op-ed has also garnered significant interest. The US-based network has handled Russia's global PR account for several years now, retaining the multimillion dollar business after a review last year. This is not the first time that Ketchum's role on the assignment has attracted media interest, even if ProPublica's claims last year proved to be more of a red herring than a smoking gun. Much of the focus has been on whether Ketchum wrote the column, which strikes me as beside the point. Whether they placed it or wrote it, Ketchum's role remains the same - it is working for the Russian Government to help improve its engagement with people around the world, in the hope that this will result in a better reputation. With that goal in mind, I would hardly have been surprised had Ketchum actually wrote the whole thing based on its client's objectives — which is hardly an uncommon task for public relations counsellors. Others have wondered whether Ketchum's work for Russia is somehow anti-American. Perhaps it is at odds with US Government policy, in this case at least. Yet the idea that a global company of Ketchum's size can only work for organizations that support US political interests (or the idea of American exceptionalism) in every instance is patently unrealistic. As to whether Ketchum should even work for Russia — if PR agencies confined their activities to clients with lily-white ethical records, it would probably render useless the value of the public relations discipline, as long as you accept that this involves trying to genuinely improve behaviour, rather than simply covering up sins. Instead, the key question must relate to the actual content of Putin's op-ed. Even if you accept that Ketchum had no hand in writing the piece, they remain Russia's public relations counsel; it is their responsibility, presumably, to ensure that the communication is truthful or, at the very least, not disingenuous. That responsibility persists even if, as they claim, all they did was pitch the New York Times. On this count, there appears to be some grounds for doubt. Putin, for example, claims that any chemical weapons have been used by Syria's opposition forces rather than its government, a controversial contention that is at odds with the US government position. UN officials are expected to report back on this early next week. The Russian President's wholehearted support for the UN process, meanwhile, is refreshing, but masks his own country's attempts to obstruct that process, without, of course, mentioning the conflicts that Russia has fought in recent times. None of these points is decisively dishonest, but they do raise the question: Did Ketchum do all it could to vet the content of the op-ed? It is an easy one to raise, but a much harder one to answer, as I'm not convinced the client was actively seeking Ketchum's opinion. Regardless, as the designated public relations specialist, it is the fundamental question that Ketchum needs to be comfortable answering.