Toward the end of a two-day public
relations conference at the St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University
in June, Vladimir Ugryumov summarized the sentiments of the Russian educators
and practitioners present.
"The profession of public relations is based on American and English public relations," said Ugryumov, the head of public relations for St. Petersburgís city parliament. "We need our own public relations."
With a majority in the lecture hall nodding their heads, he proclaimed, "Russia is a different place with its own problems."
The idea that "Russia is a different place with its own problems" is something foreign visitors often hear in the former communist state. In one sense, it is an excuse for resisting change. These are hard times in the Russian Federation, and the transition from a controlled economy to a free market economy has been difficult and, in some cases, painful. However, the idea that Russia is "different" is also, in the same breath, both an invitation and a warning to public relations consultants and agencies wishing to enter the Russian market. Transplanting democratic values into a society that until six years ago had known only centuries of repression will require time and patience.
Deja Vu All Over Again?
Before doing business in what
is geographically the worldís largest country, one needs to understand
the current environment in which Russian journalism, public relations and
public opinion operate. There is some truth to the idea that "Russia
is a different place with its own problems." Public relations in
the United States blossomed in a society that had long-standing democratic
traditions. That is clearly not the case in Russia. Additionally,
the private sector served as the catalyst for American public relations.
During a period of rapid growth in the late 1880s companies such as Mutual
Life Insurance and Westinghouse first felt the need for formalizing their
communications. However, at the birth of democratic Russia,
the government public relations apparatus is far more established than
those in the commercial sector. With much of the bureaucracy clinging
to its old Soviet ways, the transition from propaganda to two-way public
relations may come slowly.
Although there is always danger in making cross-cultural comparisons, there are similarities between the Russia of today and the United States at the dawn of the 20th Century. American public relations was born during a period in which democracy and its institutions matured. With the flood of immigrants and the growth of the middle class, the relationships between government, business and the voting public changed. Public opinion became more important. It was a time in which the nation reexamined and, to a certain extent, redefined itself. Modern American public relations developed as a means for coping with this change. Similar forces are at work today in Russia.
The Press: From Red to Yellow
For example, the public relations
profession emerged in both nations in a period dominated by the "yellow
press," characterized by highly partisan, inaccurate and sensationalistic
reporting. In the United States, organized public relations began
as the yellow press was evolving into an investigative muckraking style,
the forerunner of todayís American journalism. In Russia, where the
free press is in its infancy, that evolution is just beginning.
Russian journalists often do not do the things that are instinctive to their American counterparts, such as ask tough questions, seek out multiple sources and give direct attribution to their sources. They have been known to report process over substance. It is not unusual to have a journalistís emotions cloud his or her reporting. Often, it is impossible to distinguish between news and advertising copy, a tactic that has come to be known as hidden advertising.
Reporters may sell advertising to augment their meager salaries, a clear conflict of interest. "It is very profitable for journalists to work here," said Gennady Malyshev, general manager of Kirishy Fakel, a newspaper serving an industrial town near St. Petersburg. "If the journalist brings in advertising, he gets 20 percent." However, Malyshev said his paper does not print hidden advertising.
Anna Sharogradskaia, regional coordinator of Russiaís National Press Institute, believes reporters are under no pressure to change. "They are not encouraged by their editors or even their readers to do their job," she said.
Another distinguishing aspect of Russian journalism is the degree of government control that is still exerted. Even with the demise of communism, most of the major media outlets are at least partially government owned, and some are wholly owned. "Certainly they enjoy freedom of the press," Sharogradskaia said. "There are no longer forbidden topics, and they can write whatever they want to.
"But if their buildings, equipment and printing presses belong to the state, the state has the mechanism for making them far from being free."
Even those media that are truly independent of the government are struggling with the concept of private control -- something their American counterparts often face. "The press can write the truth about anybody but not its owner," said Alexi Pankin, editor in chief of the trade magazine Sreda. Boris Pankin, his father and a former government official, expressed a harsher view when he told a Freedom Forum conference in St. Petersburg, "Each media group has its own owner, and they monitor (media) activities more than the former Central Committee of the Communist Party."
Second Verse, Same as the First
Depending on whom you talk to,
Russian government public relations is either a positive force in democratization
or a vestige of the old authoritarian regime.
Ugryumov, who has been in his government job for two years, sees himself as operating in a traditional public relations role -- as a link between the city parliament and the various publics important to its success. ìThe work of the PR service is to find out what people are thinking,î he said.
Russian practitioners also voice complaints familiar to those in the West. "When there is good news, the boss wants to be on the television screen," said Vsevolod Morozov, press secretary for the Leningrad Oblast Committee for Medical Promotion. "When there is bad news, he wants to hide behind his press secretary."
However, government ownership of the media often has Russian government information officers operating in the dual role of practitioner and reporter. This is similar to the situation in America in the early 1900s, when it was not uncommon for someone to work as a journalist in the morning and as a publicist in the afternoon.
Some believe that the problem with Russian government public relations has less to do with practitioners and more to do with their bosses. There is a sense that many prefer to operate under the old Soviet approach of "we will tell you only what we think you need to know." Quite often, the practitioner gets caught in the crossfire. Valentina Domosyeva, press officer for the Leningrad Oblast Committee of Social Welfare, said she once prepared a television broadcast explaining a 50 percent shortfall of money earmarked for mothers with dependent children. Although the program was designed to ease public concerns, Domosyeva said Oblast officials refused to air it.
Even Sharogradskaia, who believes Russian government public relations is "a disaster," is sympathetic. "One should not envy public relations people because sometimes they try to do a good job,î she said. ìBut their bosses ruin everything by doing the opposite."
The Perils of Private PR
Commercial public relations in
Russia, both corporate and agency, is lagging behind government public
relations in development. Thatís not a surprise, since the free market
has been in place only six years while the government has been churning
out propaganda since the 1917 revolution. However, those interested in
filling this void should follow the advice given to anyone thinking of
doing business in Russia: Go in with your eyes wide open.
The growth in the private sector is being led by foreign-based corporations and agencies that import their public relations practices and values. "It has been hard to convince Russian companies that they need public relations," said Andrei Barannikov of Gronat, a public relations and advertising agency in St. Petersburg. Although the original owner of the agency had been from Sweden, Barannikov said it had evolved into a Russian-only agency. Despite that, only 30 percent of Gronatís clients are based in Russia.
Olga Chernishova is a public relations manager with Coca Cola - St. Petersburg. Much of her job focuses on internal affairs. "It is an American company, trying to uphold company policies, while trying to make employees loyal to the company," Chernishova said. Also like her American counterparts, Chernishova engages in promotional activities, such as factory tours, to build healthy relations with consumers. However, an important aspect of her job is building and maintaining relations with an intrusive government bureaucracy that hasnít fully embraced the concept of a free market economy.
"My job is to convince inspectors that the activities of Coca Cola are not dangerous for customers," Chernishova said. "Coca Cola canít decide for itself if it has the right to exist. The government structure has to be involved."
For foreign companies setting up shop in Russia, government involvement can be a major concern. At the aforementioned conference at St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University, several practitioners representing foreign-based firms told stories of run-ins with various government inspectors and the tax police. Each was circumspect as to how these disputes were resolved. One said, "We chose to resolve the situation calmly. We did not involve the press." Although public relations tactics can sometimes smooth over differences with Russian officials, bribery is commonplace.
Walk, Donít Run
Is this an opportune time to
think about expanding an agencyís or companyís reach into the Russian Federation?
The answer largely depends upon whether one has an optimistic or pessimistic
view of life. Optimists will note that Russia has made tremendous
progress both socially and politically since the fall of the Soviet Union.
An example is the 1996 election of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev,
who defeated an incumbent in a free election. At the same time, the
nation is still trying to get its economic house in order. Already
this year, the international community has poured in $22.6 billion in loans
to bolster the shaky Russian economy. However, there is one fact
about Russians that is undeniable: They are survivors.
And what of the future of public relations in Russia? Interest in the profession continues to grow, especially in light of the high profile foreign public relations counselors had during recent elections in Vladivostok. Evidence of this interest can be seen in the growing number of public relations programs springing up at various colleges and universities. American universities, private foundations and government agencies such as the United States Information Service have been helping Russian schools establish public relations curricula.
However, Anna Sharogradskaia is concerned that too much Russian public relations instruction focuses on tactics and body language. "I donít want all these tricks on how to pretend that you are a nice person when you are not," she said.
Sharogradskaia wants a more symmetrical approach to public relations education. "What I want to experience is something which is connected with the culture of official-to-citizen relations," Sharogradskaia said. "This should be a culture in which the citizen is treated with dignity."
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