Russia, often criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, paid handsomely for the public-relations work. From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, according to foreign agent filings.
Op-ed editors interviewed by ProPublica said they work to include full disclosure of relevant financial interests or conflicts — or decline to run pieces that read like advertorial.
“People write op-eds because they have agendas. Separating out what’s an ethical agenda from an unethical agenda is really tough,” says Sue Horton, op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Horton said the role of the Russian government’s public-relations firm in placing the CNBC and Huffington Post op-eds “absolutely seems like something the reader would want to know.”
The op-eds placed by Ketchum for Russia, according to the filings, are:
- A March 2010 CNBC piece by Peter Gerendasi, then managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers Russia, that praises the government of then-President Dmitry Medvedev for its “strategic priorities [of] diversification, innovation, promoting small business, supporting families and strengthening the country’s financial system so that it can provide the investment capital that will enable business to grow and people to realize their potential.” Gerendasi declined to comment on the piece and PricewaterhouseCoopers said it did not pay Ketchum to place the piece and declined to comment further.
- An April 2010 CNBC piece by Kingsmill Bond, then chief strategist at the Moscow investment bank Troika Dialog, that ran under the headline “Russia—Europe’s Bright Light of Growth.” It called Russia possibly “the most dynamic place on the continent” for investors. Bond, now at Citigroup, told ProPublica he could not recall Ketchum’s role in the piece.
- A September 2010 Huffington Post piece, titled “President Medvedev’s Project Of Modernization,” by Pabst, the University of Kent academic. While acknowledging human rights and corruption problems, the thrust of Pabst’s op-ed was praise for Medvedev’s “transformational vision for Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.” Pabst told ProPublica he was contacted by a Kethcum subcontractor, Portland Communications, and that he was not paid to write the piece. The piece, as well as another he wrote for a web site run by Ketchum, “reflect my own ideas and arguments,” he said in an email.
- A January 2012 CNBC piece by Laura Brank, the head of the Russia practice for the international law firm Dechert. Brank praised the Russian government for working to overcome the perception of an inhospitable investment climate “through the implementation and enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” Brank did not respond to requests for comment.
While Ketchum maintains it always identifies its client when dealing with the media, the 2010 email sent by Ketchum to Huffington Post pitching the Pabst column did not mention that Russia was the firm’s client. (See the full email.)
“Below is a piece from Adrian Pabst, a leading Russia[…]