Vladimir Putin’s first foray into the American op-ed world has produced far more heat than light since its publication Sept. 12.
The 1100-word screed under Putin’s byline was a masterpiece of chutzpah, portraying the Russia president as a God-fearing protector of democracy and stalwart supporter of the United Nations, especially the Security Council where Russia has flagrantly used its veto since the beginning of the Syria conflict. Understandably the reaction in the West has been jaw-droppingly negative.
Anna Neistat, associate director of Human Rights Watch, dismissed the essay as “a compilation of half-truths and accusations.” Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said, “I almost wanted to vomit.”
But the greatest heat in this affair has emanated not from the American public but from the private conference rooms of Ketchum Public Relations, the U.S. agency that actually wrote it for Putin’s team. No original text in Russian has surfaced, most likely because it never existed. The few Russian publications that have picked up the story quote sparingly from the English version.
It is naïve to believe that Vladimir Putin sat down one night at his Kremlin desk and, pen in hand, dashed off this heartfelt opener reminiscent of FDR, “Recent events in Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people …”
One wants to say, “Oh puh-leeeeze.”
Major pronouncements such as this one, especially if placed in a major U.S. newspaper, are almost never written by the people who sign them. This is where the Ketchums of the PR industry come in. Presidents and CEOs turn to such agencies or hire expensive ex-journalists to make up their self-serving pronouncements. You can ignore the Kremlin spokesman’s quaint assurance that Putin actually jotted down the “basic content” for this piece and let his aides flesh them out. He was probably out of the loop until late-stage drafts.
In fact, major op-eds that PR agencies produce are the outcome of long, intense conference calls among highly paid PR hacks billing the client like crazy. Over a period of weeks, multiple drafts zip back and forth. Careers are made or ruined in this arena.
At stake from Ketchum’s point of view was not the 100,000 dead in Syria’s civil war fueled by Russian arms. At stake was Ketchum’s Russian contracts, which are among the agency’s largest and have made Ketchum the mouthpiece for everything from Putin’s fantasies to the Sochi winter Olympics to Kremlin-controlled Gazprom.
I am no innocent observer. I once wrote op-ed pieces for Burson-Marsteller to persuade the public that “second-hand smoke” is good for you, and to promote the brutal Indonesian army in its efforts to crush the East Timor independence movement. Philip Morris and the government of Indonesia were two of B-M’s main clients, bringing in many millions of dollars a year. I was billed out at an incredible $350 an hour, far more than I was worth. With distance of a decade or so, I now see how utterly cynical the PR business had made me.
Perhaps the oddest dimension to the Putin case is the attitude of the New York Times editorial page editor, the liberal-minded Andrew Rosenthal. His own paper quotes him as saying he found the Putin piece “well-written, well-argued.” He said he disagreed with “many points,” but added that there is “no ideological litmus test” in the op-ed world. Without mentioning that it was a PR handout, he said he found the Putin piece needed “virtually no editing.” He decided to run it because it was a “piece of great news value.” Decoded, this means he knew that if he rejected it the Washington Post would grab it.
Someone at Ketchum, probably an ex-journalist who has lost his moral compass, will get a vice presidency out of this.
If Putin actually endorses the ideas that ran under his name, he might do well to convert his assertions into action. He could start at home where his government arrests human rights activists and threatens to close non-governmental organizations on the grounds of espionage. The Russian legal framework is evolving as a tighter and tighter noose around the freedoms that he professes to defend.
Abroad he might start accepting that the sarin gas attack launched against civilians on August 21 in a Damascus suburb was the work of the Assad regime, not the opposition.
Alternatively, he could go back Ketchum and ask them to place some more op-eds.