Following recent reports into Ketchum PR’s involvement with Russia, we thought we would take a deeper look into how the PR giant works its magic worldwide. This is not the first time that the PR behemoth has struck controversy, yet they continue to go from strength to strength. What is their secret?
First and foremost, Ketchum PR is not afraid to get its hands dirty. On more than one occasion, the company has brushed up against United States Federal Law for being involved in “covert propaganda”, usually upon instruction from the US Government itself. Whether promoting government-backed health insurance plans such as Medicare, or pupil premiums to help disadvantaged children under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, Ketchum has shown it is prepared to do everything necessary to get its client’s message out in the open.
In 2004-2005, Ketchum came under scrutiny more than once for its use of Video News Releases (also known as VNRs) which featured actors posing as journalists, and for paying journalists for column inches. In 2004, Ketchum was hired by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (henceforth HHS) to promote changes to Medicare insurance that would have a particular impact on senior citizens. Under a $25 million dollar contact – for which it had collected $2 million in fees in 2005 – Ketchum was drafted in to create a hard-hitting advertising and media campaign.
To do this, Ketchum called upon the help of several journalists and PR experts to draft a series of articles, advertisements and VNRs. During this campaign and others, Ketchum enlisted the help of Karen Ryan, a PR expert-cum-actor who participated in the VNRs which were set up to look like news reportage, but which heavily pushed the messages behind the campaigns without declaring interest.
The advertisements that Ketchum created were aired on at least 40 television channels. The campaign was extremely hard-hitting, but received negative media attention when it emerged that the Government Accountability Office had found that campaign violated a federal propaganda ban for not making explicit the link between the campaign and its relationship with the government.
In another instance, Ketchum signed a $1 million dollar contract with the Department of Education to raise awareness about the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. By the end of its first term, the Bush administration had spent $250 million on PR. Once again, during this campaign, Ketchum enlisted the services of Karen Ryan, as well as those of actual journalists, such as the conservative, African-American columnist, Armstrong Williams, who was reported to have received up to $240,000 to promote the controversial policies in a series of tailored “news” stories. Williams eventually came under fire for not disclosing the fact he was being paid.
Ketchum doesn’t miss a trick
Ketchum knows how and when to take risks, and these risks pay big dividends, as we have seen. Most importantly, Ketchum has got the 50% Maverick factor, and is not afraid to jump when they see an opportunity. One such opportunity came during the G8 conference of 2006.
Since 1923, and indeed since the 1996 merger with Omnicom, Ketchum has made a concerted effort to expand its empire through good relationships with overseas agencies. One such agency is Ketchum Maslov, until 2010 known as Maslov PR.
Under the directorship of Michael Maslov, a polyglot PR guru touting a PhD in Political Science, the agency has grown from strength to strength since its inception in 1994. Maslov is a highly-connected individual, and has built relationships around a wide sphere of projects that he has worked on in his homeland.
It was Maslov who, in 2006, had the keen eye to spot lucrative, low-hanging fruit for he and his partners at Ketchum. At the time, Maslov was co-ordinating Russia’s image for the G8 conference, the same time that Ketchum was working with the Bush administration. The Russian government was in need of a helping hand, having received criticism from Russian liberals and Westerners alike for its suppression of the media in light of corruption scandals. Having distanced itself from Stanislav Belkovsky, the famed publicist-turned-political-analyst who is said to have secured Putin’s place in power post-2008, the Kremlin needed a new and innovative answer to its PR woes. Maslov secured this opportunity, providing Ketchum a smooth segway out of its relationship with the Bush administration into new and fertile Russian pastures.
According to Business Insider, “from 2006 to 2012, Ketchum was paid almost $23 million in fees and expenses on its Russia account, as well as $17 million on an account for Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant. In the first six months of 2013, it was paid $1.9 million on its Russia account and $3.7 million on the Gazprom account.”
People for the American Way
Ketchum contracts and related documents