initiative on Syria, picking up on a stray comment by U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry to call for a diplomatic solution to the mess. But it’s
downright shocking that Russian President Vladimir Putin made his case with a bylined column in The New York Times Wednesday (a piece placed by PR firm Ketchum).
In calling for restraint in the use of military force in Syria, Putin
suggests that the use of poison gas that killed thousands was actually
perpetrated by Syrian rebels—an accusation that the White House
immediately shot down. But Putin’s reasonable tone and elegant language
make such a “false flag” attack almost credible.
It is in Putin’s final paragraph that the former KGB strongman really
lets loose and shows his communications chops. In what seems a direct
response to President Obama’s Tuesday address, he challenges the concept
of American exceptionalism. Pushing back against Obama’s earlier
reference to what makes our nation different, Putin warns that it is
“extremely dangerous” to encourage people to see themselves as
exceptional and reminds us that “we are all different, but when we ask
for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Astonishing, considering the source: A man whose government has taken a
shellacking in recent months over a highly restrictive anti-gay law and
for silencing critics thereof.
The U.S. response to the editorial has been cynical, but from a
communications perspective, the piece is very instructive. Putin and his
PR handlers have done several things that can be very effective when
making a case in public.
Find common ground. The Russian president opens by reminding us
of historic bonds between our two nations and our many shared
accomplishments. He even tries to soften us up by mentioning the Nazis.
Reframe the argument. Putin describes the Syrian conflict not as a
struggle for democracy— that most precious of American ideals—but as an
ethnic and religious war abetted by mercenaries.
Sow seeds of doubt and fear. In a calm, reasoned tone, Putin
suggests that the U.S. version of events does not correspond to reality.
More skillfully, he expresses concern for the consequences of Syrian
Exploit weakness. As if on behalf of the American people, Putin
questions why we would want to “repeat the mistakes” of the past by
becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Of course, this echoes many
domestic discussions, and he knows that very well.
Invoke core values. He then cites the prized American ideal of
equality for all people, our most cherished core value, and turns it
upside down to make his case for non-intervention. Even bolder, he
invokes America’s tradition of religious freedom and our Judeo-Christian
tradition by mentioning God.
Bypass intermediaries. In his editorial, Putin mounts his appeal
directly to the American people. That’s another reason why his closing
paragraph, as disingenuous as it may be, is so resonant.
Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw
Communications. She has been named one of the public relations
industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story
originally appeared on her agency’s ImPRessions blog.
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