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Friday, October 21, 2016

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica.

Today, Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed about Syria in the New York Times. The piece was placed by the public-relations giant Ketchum, BuzzFeed reported. On Nov. 16, 2012, we explored how Ketchum placed pro-Russia op-eds in American publications by businesspeople and others without disclosing the role of the Russian government. Ketchum’s latest public filing says it was paid $1.9 million by Russia for the six-month period ending May 31, 2013. It received another $3.7 million for its work for Russian energy giant Gazprom over the same period. Here is our original report.

Several opinion columns praising Russia and published in the last two years on CNBC’s website and the Huffington Post were written by seemingly independent professionals but were placed on behalf of the Russian government by its public relations firm, Ketchum.

The columns, written by two businessmen, a lawyer, and an academic, heap praise on the Russian government for its “ambitious modernization strategy” and “enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” One of the CNBC opinion pieces, authored by an executive at a Moscow-based investment bank, concludes that “Russia may well be the most dynamic place on the continent.”

There’s nothing unusual about Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia. Public relations firms constantly peddle op-eds on behalf of politicians, corporations, and governments. Rarely if ever do publications disclose the role of a PR firm in placing an op-ed, so it’s unusual to get a glimpse behind the scenes and see how an op-ed was generated.

What readers of the CNBC and Huffington Post pieces did not know — but Justice Department foreign agent registration filings by Ketchum show — is that the columns were placed by the public-relations firm working on a contract with the Russian government to, among other things, promote the country “as a place favorable for foreign investments.”

In at least one case, a Ketchum subcontractor reached out to a writer and offered to place his columns in media outlets. The writer, Adrian Pabst, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, said that his views were his own and that he was not influenced or paid by Ketchum.

A spokesman for CNBC, which published the pieces on the Guest Blog section of its website, declined to comment. A Huffington Post spokesman said the column placed by Ketchum did not violate the site’s policy.

Ketchum spokeswoman Jackie Burton told ProPublica that when the firm corresponds with experts or the media on behalf of Russia, “consistent with Ketchum’s policies and industry standards, we clearly state that we represent the Russian Federation.”

Russia, often criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, paid handsomely for the public relations work. From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, according to foreign agent filings.

Op-ed editors interviewed by ProPublica said they work to include full disclosure of relevant financial interests or conflicts — or decline to run pieces that read like an advertorial.

“People write op-eds because they have agendas. Separating out what’s an ethical agenda from an unethical agenda is really tough,” says Sue Horton, op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Horton said the role of the Russian government’s public relations firm in placing the CNBC and Huffington Post op-eds “absolutely seems like something the reader would want to know.”

The op-eds placed by Ketchum for Russia, according to the filings, are:

-A March 2010 CNBC piece by Peter Gerendasi, then managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers Russia, that praises the government of then-president Dmitry Medvedev for its “strategic priorities [of] diversification, innovation, promoting small business, supporting families and strengthening the country’s financial system so that it can provide the investment capital that will enable business to grow and people to realize their potential.” Gerendasi declined to comment on the piece and PricewaterhouseCoopers said it did not pay Ketchum to place the piece and declined to comment further.

-An April 2010 CNBC piece by Kingsmill Bond, then chief strategist at the Moscow investment bank Troika Dialog, that ran under the headline “Russia 2014: Europe’s Bright Light of Growth.” It called Russia possibly “the most dynamic place on the continent” for investors. Bond, now at Citigroup, told ProPublica he could not recall Ketchum’s role in the piece.

-A September 2010 Huffington Post piece, titled “President Medvedev’s Project Of Modernization,” by Pabst, the University of Kent academic. While acknowledging human rights and corruption problems, the thrust of Pabst’s op-ed was praise for Medvedev’s “transformational vision for Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.” Pabst told ProPublica he was contacted by a Ketchum subcontractor, Portland Communications, and that he was not paid to write the piece. The piece, as well as another he wrote for a website run by Ketchum, “reflect my own ideas and arguments,” he said in an email.

-A January 2012 CNBC piece by Laura Brank, the head of the Russia practice for the international law firm Dechert. Brank praised the Russian government for working to overcome the perception of an inhospitable investment climate “through the implementation and enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” Brank did not respond to requests for comment.

While Ketchum maintains it always identifies its client when dealing with the media, the 2010 email sent by Ketchum to Huffington Post pitching the Pabst column did not mention that Russia was the firm’s client. (See the full email.)

“Below is a piece from Adrian Pabst, a leading Russia scholar in Europe,” wrote then-Ketchum vice president Matt Stearns, who is now at UnitedHealth Group.

Ketchum says that Stearns had in previous correspondence identified Russia as his client to the Huffington Post editor, including to set up “a blog on the editor’s site for a member of the Russian government.” The company did not provide that correspondence.

Huffington Post spokesman Rhoades Alderson said the site has a policy requiring bloggers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest related to the issue they are writing about, but Pabst did not violate the policy.

“The job of our blog editors is to make sure all of our posts add value for our readers,” Alderson said in a statement. “Part of that is making judgment calls about the transparency of each blogger’s motive, even in cases when there is no technical violation of the disclosure policy. A submission by a PR firm raises flags but is not automatically disqualified if the blog adds value and is in keeping with our guidelines.”

Placement of op-eds is a standard part of the influence game, but it’s rare for readers to ever find out who is behind the curtain.

In 2011, top public relations firm Burson-Marsteller came under criticism after it asked a blogger to author an op-ed criticizing Google’s privacy standards. Burson was working on a contract for Facebook at the time.

Public-relations firms have also been known to write op-eds and have them placed under the byline of a third party, and even to pay experts to write favorable op-eds. There’s no evidence Ketchum paid any of the authors of the Russia op-eds or that it ghost-wrote them.

Update: This post has been updated with more detail on Ketchum’s correspondence with Huffington Post.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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  • Vazir Mukhtar

    So what did you expect? That President Putin wrote an op-ed piece and sent it electronically to the New York Times? Or that someone from the Russian mission to the UN walked it to the Times?

    As long as Russia’s American-based PR people are required to register and the public can learn who its agents are, I don’t see a problem. Those most likely to be misled by a piece by Putin are least likely to be readers of the Times.

    Does the principle behind an op-ed piece under Mr Putin’s name differ that much from that behind an op-ed piece by the PM, Mr Cameron, or the President of France, Mr Hollande?

  • charleo1

    Whenever reading an op-ed piece that claims, X, is the most dynamic whatever
    on the Continent, in the World, or, since the beginning of time! It’s not really that
    important to know who’s writing, or promoting the article? Nah! It’s all about the,
    “value.” Come again?

    • Michael Kollmorgen

      I read the complete Op Ed Article.

      I have no doubt Putin is sincere in his opinion of the situation in Syria and his knowledge of the fighting forces within that country.

      You have to remember, it was Russia first who tried the same thing in Afganestan and lost big time, nearly ruining their own economy in the process. They’ve lost that taste in their mouths for imperialistic goals.

      Now, we’re stuck in Afganestan if not worse than Russia was. We’re on our way out hopefully soon.

      Our government wants to get involved with another sovereign country’s internal affairs once again – Syria. Obama is beating the War Drum where he has no business doing it involving our country in it. And, certainly not on a unilateral basis by ourselves.

      It did not help US credibility invading Iraq or Afganestan. It won’t help with Syria either.

      The ONLY way to do anything is through the UN. We can not keep feeling our country is “exceptional’ and acting on our impulses for so called justice. Our CIA is not that knowledgeable of the fighting forces in Syria, since IF we do bomb Syria, we are basically supporting the very rebel groups which we have termed as terrorist groups. And, I would have no doubt they themselves used those devices to draw in the US into their fight. These terrorist have been well-known to use their own children to promote their own agendas.

      The US had better tread very carefully or we could find ourselves in a major war. Best thing to do is stay the hell out of it and don’t even send the rebels support, weaponry of any kind.

      Let these people battle it out themselves. This is a internal civil war we have no business getting involved with.

      • charleo1

        Well, I don’t disagree. In fact, I happen to agree with your comments
        99.9% of the time. So, your position is absolutely reasonable. I do
        agree with Obama’s outrage. And personally support his raising holy Hell about the use of chemical weapons. And reminding the world, no matter how weary, upholding international norms, and agreements, continues to be important. That said, I don’t believe there was any ulterior motive here. As Obama has resisted arming the rebels, even as many on the Right, like John McCain, have excoriated him for it.
        But, my take is I believe he felt very strongly about this. I’m as sure
        as a bystander can be, he knew the politics were going to be terrible.
        But, he did it, because he felt morally obligated to do something.
        As I’m fairly sure he explored remedies thru the UN. And found that
        avenue blocked by Russia, and China. Not the most moral of Nations. He turned to NATO, and found they too were going to let this pass. So, he upped the anti. And, perhaps there will be a positive outcome with regard to Assad’s weapons after all. But, like I said previously. I respect your opinion on this. In fact, it’s probably the majority opinion. Which is very hard to argue with, by the way!

        • Michael Kollmorgen

          Without a doubt I also agree with you.

          I think Obama, however moral was the justification for possible strike into Syria, was the worst thing I think he ever has done in his administration.

          Naturally, it was totally justified to bring this up to the international community as basically crimes against humanity, which it is. But, he should have never used possible military action as a trump card. I think he jumped the gun on this one big time.

          Yes, Russia and China are not the best of countries. They have their own internal problems galore. China out of both countries seems to be the only one that has imperialistic goals of expansionism for all practical purposes.

          Putin at this point seems to be the one that is using the most common sense with Syria. And, I believe Putin knows a lot more about these terrorist groups than our government does. Russia has tons of problems with them in their own country and their surrounding borders. So, whatever he says about these terrorist groups, I take for granted as being way more knowledgeable than our government claims to be.

          Then too, “this” country has never given anyone else credit for knowing something more than we do. After all, we keep “thinking” we are exceptional.

          When will WE ever learn?……………….

          • bobjr

            You give our government no credit and seem to glorify Putin.

          • Michael Kollmorgen

            I don’t glorify any government!

            At least in this one instance, Putin makes a whole lot more sense than our government does.

            I don’t give our government credit where it isn’t deserved. I won’t give credit where it isn’t due just because it’s the patriotic thing to do.

            I don’t glorify ANY government or any particular leader. Obama is probably one of the finest presidents we have had so far. However, he really stepped over the line on this one by advocating for military strikes on a sovereign country that does in no way affect us directly.

            It’s about time the US starts to mind its own dam business. As far as I’m concerned Syria is the least of our problems.

          • charleo1

            As I told one poster who was gleefully pounding away on
            President Obama. That being President is one of, if not the
            toughest job in the world. And that no President had been
            right 100% of the time. Nor wrong 100% of the time. An
            interesting series running right now, called The Gatekeepers,
            is about the men who have served as Chief of staff for various Presidents. And every President from Johnson,
            (as far back as the series goes,) to Obama, have managed
            to put themselves in a bad place in one way or another. Emanuel made the point, that Presidents don’t get choices, where there is a wrong way, or a better way. Those are made at the lower levels. The President gets the problems where there are only a bad solution, or a worse one.
            And I do agree, Obama got way out ahead of himself on this one. But, for a noble cause, in my opinion. Compared for instance, to getting head in the Oval Office, lying about it, then getting caught by the entire Country, and even worse,
            if you know what I mean, by his wife! So, Presidents are
            in the final analysis, are men like everyone else. With their individual strengths, and weaknesses. And we shouldn’t expect perfection as much as we do. Or, so it seems to me.

  • CPAinNewYork

    Putin is an ex-KGB thug who tried to poison the president of the Ukraine. Russia is ruled by a bunch of criminals who are in bed with Putin.

    Anyone who believes what Russia puts in the press is a fool and if he or she invests in Russia they deserve to be robbed.

  • Dominick Vila

    What interests me the most is not who delivered Putin’s op-ed to the Times, but the fact that the former champions of communism are now using public relations firms to advance their material and geopolitical interests.
    Interestingly, the American press seems to be more interested in Vladimir’s efforts to manipulate public opinion than recognize the fact that Putin blinked under pressure.

    • silence dogood

      Vlad is doing donuts on Obama’s front lawn. Cold beats cool. Gee……..the audacity of Vlad.
      The NYT use to pay Walter Duranty to shill for the Russians. Did they decide to cut out the middle man ?