The sudden messaging shift has coincided with a behind-the-scenes move: The Russian government has hired Burson-Marsteller, a New York-based global public relations firm that specializes defending the reputations of widely vilified clients, such as Philip Morris tobacco company.
A Burson-Marsteller spokeswoman declined to answer questions this week about the firm’s new client, instead releasing this statement: “Burson-Marsteller is advising on a range of communications and media issues relating to Russia’s participation at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.”
It’s unclear exactly when Burson-Marsteller started advising Russia, but in a matter of days last month, officials with the government’s Ministry of Sport pulled an about-face when discussing the doping scandal. After a new wave of allegations on “60 Minutes” and in the New York Times in early May, Russian sports officials initially dismissed the reports as “groundless,” calling one whistleblower “a scoundrel” and another “a turncoat.” But on May 15, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko wrote an op-ed for Britain’s Sunday Times entitled, “Russia is sorry and has cleaned up its act. Please let us compete in Rio.”
In the weeks that followed, Burson-Marsteller invited news organizations to tour Russian anti-doping labs and athletic facilities, and the firm also arranged interviews with athletes, anti-doping officers, and others in elite Russian sports circles. Last weekend, Burson-Marsteller spread the word that a Russian sports ministry official would take questions via Twitter on Monday morning. Then the firm circulated a Russian government news release promising a new doping education program “to reform social attitudes to doping in Russia.” Britain’s The Guardian newspaper described the series of events as a “charm offensive.”
The public relations help comes at a vital time for Russian athletes hoping to compete in Rio. Next week in Vienna, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) — the organization that oversees global track and field — is expected to decide whether to lift a suspension of Russia’s track and field team in time for the August Olympics. Just a few weeks later, by July 15, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is set to conclude its investigation into the latest round of allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia.
Former Barson-Marsteller executive Gene Grabowski said Russia is clearly adhering to the classic public relations crisis response strategy known as “foul up, ‘fess up and fix up.”
“That’s the basic formula,” said Grabowski, now a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based firm kglobal. “You acknowledge you messed up, you know you messed up, and you’re trying to make it right.”
Russia’s “‘fess up” has not included any confirmation of government involvement in doping, however, as alleged by Vitaliy Stepanov, a former Russian anti-doping agent; Yuliya Stepanova, a former elite Russian runner; and Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab. Russian sports ministry officials have offered general apologies while pleading with sports organizations like the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee to allow Russia’s athletes to compete in Rio.
In Monday’s Twitter question-and-answer session, Russian sports ministry official Natalia Zhelanova disputed claims of government involvement in doping.
“I don’t believe there is any truth to these allegations,” Zhelanova wrote. “We acknowledge past problems and are working tirelessly to reform our anti-doping programme in the longterm … the state has taken a lead in doing everything to demonstrate we are reforming and have nothing to hide.”
Zhelanova echoed the message conveyed by Mutko, the Russian sports minister, in his op-ed last month.
“We are very sorry that athletes who tried to deceive us, and the world, were not caught sooner,” Mutko wrote. “We have done everything that has been asked of us. … It would be unjust to demand all these changes and measures, witness them happen, and then still punish Russia’s athletes.”
Founded in 1953, Burson-Marsteller established its stellar crisis management reputation in 1982, when it helped pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson deal with the fallout from the Chicago Tylenol murders, when an unknown person laced several pill bottles with cyanide, killing seven.
Burson-Marsteller has drawn criticism for some of its work over the years, however. The firm campaigned to sow doubt about the ills of secondhand smoke on behalf of Philip Morris, advised Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and has represented ruling parties in three nations implicated in mass killings (Nigeria, Argentina and Indonesia).
In 2012, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow ticked off a long list of the firm’s former clients — which also includes the corporations involved in the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear plant and the Bhopal gas leak in India that killed up to 15,000 people — and then said, “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
That criticism, while stinging, probably helped Burson-Marsteller’s bottom line, according to former employee Grabowski.
“On the one hand, it’s a criticism; on the other hand, it’s a marketing slogan,” he said. “If you’re a company or a country in trouble, and you’re being vilified … They [Burson-Marsteller] stand above most as a firm that will hear you out and take you on as a client.”
The rules of the court of public opinion should be similar to those of the court of law, Grabowski noted: Everyone is entitled to a defense.
“Everyone has a side of a story to tell, and they should be allowed to tell it … as long as there’s no clear deception,” he said.
In 2014 interview with PR Week, firm founder Harold Burson, whom the publication called “the godfather of modern PR,” objected to Maddow’s criticism. Burson called reports of genocide in Nigeria “myths,” and said his firm represented the Romanian government, not its dictator leader, whom Burson said, “only later … became a tyrant,” after his firm stopped representing Romania.
Besides, Burson noted, his firm has turned down some clients over the years. Among them: Libya, an unnamed major oil company seeking to get sanctions lifted against Iraq, and the National Rifle Association.