Does Russia need new Spokespeople to Overcome its’ Stereotypes?

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Does Russia need new Spokespeople to Overcome its’ Stereotypes?

An analysis of Westminster Russia Forum’s Summer Reception with Guest Speaker John Mann, PR Advisor to Roman Abramovich

The awe-inspiring setting of the House of Commons was the backdrop to this year’s Westminster Russia Forum Summer Reception. Guests of varying nationalities and professionals enjoyed glasses of chilled wine and overpriced canapés whilst overlooking the River Thames and awaiting our guest speaker, John Mann.

I had invited John to speak on the issue of overcoming Russian stereotypes, hoping he might also give a glimpse into the issues involved with being the PR Advisor for one of the most well-known Russians, the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich.

As a Public Relations professional myself, Mann’s strategy intrigued me. He and Abramovich seemed to favour a ‘less is more’ approach which is unusual for both PR and for Russians. Despite being one of a gaggle of ‘Oligarchs’ who profited from the chaos of the post-Perestroika 1990s, Abramovich never seems to be considered ‘one of them’. He has ridden the crest of the wave, stayed onside with the political powers-that-be and become a hero for supporters of the West London football club. Apart from a very bizarre and entirely fictitious recent report of his arrest in the USA coincidentally timed shortly after Boris Berezovsky’s death, Abramovich has remained largely untouched by the rabidly anti-Russian media.

After a few essential Chelsea-related jokes I handed the floor to John Mann, a charismatic performer in a classy suit, who many of the guests were surprised to discover is African-American.

He kicked off with a few jokes about every second movie featuring a Russian gangster, whilst assuring us that during his twelve-year residence in Moscow he has never seen a gangster. I imagine they don’t all look like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the 2007 largely London-based film Eastern Promises, but nevertheless our attitudes are often dictated by such forms of media and plenty of stereotypes have been built purely on the back of films.

Of course stereotypes aren’t always inaccurate and often contain truths which are useful to the quick judgments that humans are often forced to make. But when stereotypes are inaccurate and become a barrier to truth, justice and fair decision making, they become a significant problem with wide-ranging consequences.

Mann openly recognises that negative things happen in Russia and that there are problems with the political situation, but tempers this by pointing out that only these issues get reported in the Western media, to the exclusion of all else. He adds that the media has forgotten that its role is to inform and be critical, not to criticise.

In a metaphor that perplexed many he cited the old adage that “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”, adding that we need to remember that “inside the pig is some very tasty bacon!” His point being … I think … that Russia is far from perfect, but it has some very good qualities that are often overlooked. Or perhaps require more ketchup?!

Encouraging the 200-plus audience to give a show of hands according to which of a variety of news stories they were aware of, it was clear that knowledge of the bad outweighed that of the good.  Nearly every hand shot up at the mention of the Forbes and Sunday Times ‘Rich Lists’, the latter ranking Abramovich and AlisherUsmanov (he could have also mentioned Ukranian Leonard Blavatnik) despite neither being UK residents.

But was anybody aware of the Forbes and Bloomberg ‘Top Philanthropists’ lists? People glanced nervously at one another to check they weren’t alone in their knowledge-gap. One or two hands were tentatively raised but most remained down. The lack of awareness was based not upon ignorance but upon the deficiency of information provision. These lists weren’t published in the UK, and most international coverage was in Russian language only.

Indeed Abramovich has given $310 million to charity throughout Russia over the last three years, including supporting social and humanitarian projects and the construction of schools and hospitals. Many quite rightly question the origins and journey of oligarchs’ wealth and may well suggest that such actions are expected or indeed demanded from one of the world’s richest men, but we should not ignore the fact that such philanthropic activities take place.

So why don’t we hear about them? Why are we more interested in reading about how much wealth a person accumulates and the cars they buy rather than how much they give away to help others? There is a fundamental societal issue demonstrated by our addiction to glitz, glamour and celebrity lifestyle, which the activities of famous Russians can be packaged up to neatly fall into. This focus neglects the 16 million Russians below the poverty line, which people like Abramovich do a great deal to help. In fact it also neglects the 1 million orphans throughout the CIS which Westminster Russia Forum has raised money for via the charity iOrphan, all of course go entirely unreported by the UK media which would rather focus on manufactured conspiracy theories. 

Mann also stated that Russia needed better spokespeople, hastily adding “I don’t mean me!” I was hoping he wasn’t referring to me either. It is certainly the case that the Russians often lack the PR savviness to put the best communicators on a platform whilst hiding those with a Kremlin-complexion and sinister voice in a back room. They have become adept at issuing unintentionally comic, long-winded and brusque statements which the press have a field day taking out of context. Part of the problem is that those in a position to communicate are not representative of those they are trying to communicate with. This is why Mann is ideal – a laid-back Westerner who wouldn’t be out of place walking down the Fulham Road waving a Chelsea scarf and chanting with the crowds on his way to Stamford Bridge.  He cites the various Moscow correspondents as good friends despite not being a fan of their writing, and you can imagine him having an open and honest informal discussion with a journalist in a way that many Russian politicos would simply struggle to do.

Even amongst the upper ranks of Russian politics it’s a struggle to find good communicators that are competent, charismatic and don’t invoke childhood memories of Baron Greenback. Crucially, not enough of them have yet stepped fully beyond the mentality of the Cold War that most cut their teeth during, a problem that is apparent on both sides of the fence. Several still reduce politics to games of tit-for-tat and “what-about-ism”.

This is why many inside and outside of Russia were so exhilarated when Yeltsin addressed crowds from the roof of a tank (less so when he performed an inexplicable dance on stage in 1996) and when Putin first demonstrated the various Action Man escapades which have now become a parody.

It also explains the rise of Alexei Navalny, a man whose good looks, youth and personal magnetism combined with open neck shirt and rolled-up sleeves, appeal to a generation that experienced little, if any, of the Cold War. He is a move away from the grey-suited balding bureaucrats. He communicates with those he seeks to represent in the way they themselves communicate, through social media not sixty-page statements. His tweets are not only about politics but about everyday life, making him appear human in a way that politicians usually struggle to display. Navalny’s dynamic figure, battling against authority face-to-face on the streets, is a stark contrast to the ageing Putin who many consider to be cut-off in his Presidential Palace. If the Russian Government had a man like Navalny on its side, it would fare immeasurably better both internally and abroad.

But the recent reporting of the news regarding Navalny’s prosecution itself demonstrates Mann’s point about media bias. Each account refers to him simply as an ‘anti-corruption blogger’ and accompanying biographies begin only during his most recent incarnation. They neglect to inform the reader that this is also a man who shot (albeit with a ‘traumatic pistol’ and not directly to the head, making it apparently excusable) a heckler who disagreed with him at an open debate, was expelled from a major political party, had frequent dalliances with neo-Nazi groups and compared Islamic immigrants to flies that needed swatting. It is a sad indictment of the Russian political scene that they look upon such a man as their messianic saviour.

John Mann believes we should be writing to our media commentators and journalists, expressing our anger at being denied the full information about important events and our disgust at being contained within a cage of negativity. One might ask how we would know about such things in order to raise the question, but with information more freely available than ever before and editors of national newspapers only an email away, it’s a relevant point to make. For their part, Mann also believes the media needs to dig deeper to find the stories that currently go unnoticed, which in an age of 24-hour reporting, when a ‘Breaking News’ bulletin is repeated until we want to break our own TV screens, is a message that should be heeded by editors and producers.

Before fielding several incisive and occasionally heated questions, John Mann adds an important message – that Russia is not and never will be the West, nor should it be, as it is far more interesting the way it is. He makes the crucial point that we should be endeavouring to understand why Russia is the way it is, rather than obsessively trying to remould it in our own effigy.

By Richard Royal, the Chairman of Westminster Russia Forum

www.wrforum.org.uk, www.richardroyal.com, @lionheartroyal 

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