PR Industry Missed an Opportunity During the Putin/Ketchum Op-Ed Episode to Talk About the Role of PR

Last week’s episode in which Ketchum helped place an op-ed piece by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times has shined a less-than-flattering spotlight on the PR profession.

In the Putin article, titled, “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” Putin seeks a solution to the violence in Syria. “Recent events have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders,” Putin writes, adding that a U.S. strike against Syria “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

Ketchum’s role in placing the op-ed was first reported by BuzzFeed.

According to Justice Department filings, Ketchum was reportedly paid $1.9 million by the Russian government during the first six months of this year. It got another $3.7 million for public relations work for Gazprom, the oil and gas company controlled by the Kremlin.

“The opinion piece was written by President Putin and submitted to The New York Times on his behalf by Ketchum for their consideration,” said Jackie Burton, Ketchum’s senior VP of external relations, in a statement.

She added, “Ketchum’s work with the Russian Federation began in 2006 during Russia’s Presidency of the G8 Summit that took place in St. Petersburg. Our role has continued, with a focus on facilitating the relationship between representatives of The Russian Federation and the western media.”

She would not comment any further on the op-ed piece in the Times.

However, I’m curious about the reaction to the letter within the PR industry, or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

Sure, I can easily picture communications professionals debating Ketchum’s role in placing Putin piece, and comments would likely range from whether Ketchum has set the PR industry back to defending the agency. What, exactly, does Ketchum have to apologize for?

But that’s inside baseball. What about the consumers who have been following the story? What was their takeaway from Ketchum acting on behalf of Putin? There are well-established perceptions about the moral ambiguities of PR. This underscores that perception—PR people serve as mouthpieces for anyone and they do it for a price.

The industry could have taken the window afforded by the Putin article to explain why Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia is fair game in PR and address why some people may have a problem with it.

However, a spokeswoman for the Pubic Relations Society of America  (PRSA) told PR News that the PRSA would have no comment on Ketchum’s action and is “neutral” on the subject.

That’s unfortunate, particularly in light of the negative impression many people already harbor about public relations.

The PRSA could have sent out a media advisory to broadcasters, media companies and publishers offering the industry’s perspective on the Ketchum episode. It also could have provided some context about PR compared with other marketing disciplines, such as advertising.

That opportunity is now lost. The chance to explain to the world why PR does what it does is lost. The chance to talk about what PR is and how it’s changing and work to correct inaccurate stereotypes about the PR field is gone.

Responding to the episode could have changed the narrative about PR, however slightly. But now the song will remain the same. Until the next dustup, that is.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1 

  • Mark Perkins

    Placing a letter on behalf of Putin on the matter of Syria, at that particular time doesn’t, one supposes, represent a major intellectual or logistical challenge. Those who have had to work with clients with no particular profile and no new story and yet though innovation and imagination get them into a national news source to create conversation possibly have a bigger tale to tell about the role of. Ketchum did what was asked of them and they did it well.

    Surely though there is a secondary, more important moral story here? That of Putin turning campaigning journalist, defender of truth. The dark irony was not lost on the many hundreds of Russian journalists, broadcasters and bloggers whom have, in the past decade, been silenced, shutdown, imprisoned, beaten and driven underground or abroad during his tenure.

    Others who persevered on issues as broad as Chechnya, Putin’s secretly acquired wealth, state corruption, election rigging, human rights abuses and freedom of speech have not lived to tell the tale. Putin is less accessible to entertain these topics from the foreign media, but he’ll use the press as and when it suits him, enjoying a freedom in the American press otherwise denied to his own people at home.

  • Gerry Corbett

    Your commentary is reasonable and reasoned. However, there was much written about the editorial and the manner and form under which it took place. Speaking for myself only, I can understand why the professional organization of our industry did not speak out.

    That said, my view is that the issue is and was a tempest in a teapot. Mr. Putin and the government he represents has every right to have an opinion and to speak or write as much. Did the agency for Putin and Co. do anything wrong or less than ethical? Of course not.

    Our industry is about the free flow of ideas and information. Whether we agree with the ideas is not relevant. What is relevant is that under the U.S. Constitution there is freedom of speeech. The agency was enabling that process to take place. In that same framework, we should applaud the action of Senator John McCain to present an opposing view, which in fact he did on