It raised eyebrows when Russia seemed to seize the communications 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.
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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 military action.
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.