"We are not advising the Russian Federation on foreign policy, including the current situation in Ukraine,” says Ketchum in a statement that apparently attempts to distance itself from Vladimir Putin and his effort to re-launch the Cold War with a reconstituted Soviet Union.
Ketchum has every right to represent any despot or authoritarian leader that it wants. Every client deserves a voice. There are however risks involved in advocating on behalf of a client who appears bent on re-conquest and limiting the free speech rights of his people and press.
A dear friend, the late Ed von Kloberg, a larger than life figure, always told me that he was proud representing “the damned." That “honor roll” including Saddam Hussein, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu and then-Zaire strongman Mobutu Sese Seko. His belief: interaction with the U.S. government and media could result in a client changing his behavior toward his oppressed people.
Spy magazine ran the all-time sting operation targeting von Kloberg. A staffer pretending to be a neo-Nazi pushing for Germany’s annexation of Poland asked my buddy to represent her [Putin appears to be following that route in Crimea and perhaps eastern Ukraine]. Von Kloberg accepted the bogus client, which resulted in a story headlined “Washington’s Most Shameless Lobbyist.” True to form, von Kloberg reveled in the publicity.
“Shame is for sissies” was his philosophy.
Of course as head of a small D.C. firm, von Kloberg was in a position to take all comers. Clients such as Saddam weren’t exactly going to pull their business because they were uncomfortable sharing a PR firm with Ceausescu, who was shot with his wife by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 after being found guilty on charges of genocide and looting Romania’s economy after a two-hour trial. [Von Kloberg committed suicide in 2005 by jumping off the ramparts of a castle in Rome.]
The stakes are different for Ketchum, which has done work for consumer-oriented clients such as IBM, FedEx, Clorox, ConAgra Foods, Procter & Gamble, Wendy’s, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., Kraft and Mattel. Are blue-chips comfortable with sharing Putin’s PR firm?
Are Ketchum’s employees proud of the agency’s work for Putin?
Hill & Knowlton faced a storm of internal upheaval during the 1990s for representing U.S. bishops and their anti-abortion campaign, a $5M piece of business.
More recently, Qorvis Communications experienced a string of high-level resignations for its representation of Saudi Arabia, which turned to the D.C. firm in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Qorvis then upped the ante by adding human rights-challenged Bahrain to its roster. Qorvis this year became a property of Publicis’ MSLGroup.]
Ketchum is part of Omnicom, which will soon merge with Publicis Group. That massive entity may ultimately decide that Russia and its accompanying Gazprom account, which combined for $11.3M in fees/expenses, is not worth the image headache.
Or now that the Sochi Olympics are history, Putin, a happy camper in his own world, may decide there is no longer a need to curry favor with the U.S. public as Russia gears up for Cold War II.
He’ll just say “nyet” to both Ketchum and PR.