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Public relations in Russia: Keeping open a once closed society


April 4, 2012

Stanislav Naumov, the current president of The Russian Public Relations Association
Stanislav Naumov, the current president of The Russian Public Relations Association

Two decades ago, when I was serving as president of PRSA, Russia was emerging from an entrenched culture that did not tolerate open, two-way communication. But as the communist era ended, Alexander Borisov, a forward-thinking professor from Moscow, approached PRSA for help in launching the PR profession in the Soviet Union.

Few people in Moscow recognized public relations as an essential element of democracy and a free market economy. We in PRSA provided textbooks, student internships and counsel to jumpstart the profession. Borisov served as The Russian Public Relations Association (RASO) president for its first 10 years until the foreign ministry appointed him to a diplomatic post in the Netherlands.

RASO has matured significantly over the past 20 years. It now has more than 600 members from throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States. It boasts a code of ethics, professional certification similar to PRSA’s Accreditation program, recognized educational standards in universities and institutes throughout the country, a student organization and a professional awards program.

RASO’s four-part mission statement is straightforward:

  • Build public relations as a comprehensive and sustainable profession
  • Advocate for the public relations industry
  • Practice high professional and ethical standards
  • Develop human resources within the public relations industry, including improving higher and postgraduate education in public relations

In appreciation for PRSA’s role in launching the profession in Russia, Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA’s 2012 chair and CEO, and I were invited to Moscow for the 20th anniversary conference this past Dec. 15-16 and celebration of the Russian Public Relations Association. The conference was held at MGIMO – The University for International Relations, one of the most prestigious universities in Russia.

Over the years, I visited Russia numerous times and saw tremendous strides in the evolution of the profession. This growth was clearly demonstrated at the RASO conference with participants coming from throughout the CIS.

Stanislav Naumov, the current president of RASO, sees the association and the profession taking a more aggressive role in future by addressing major social issues in his country, including ethnic conflicts, the plight of the elderly and even highway courtesy.

 “It is important to move beyond the primitive understanding of public relations as a method of manipulating a social issue,” he said. “We have to study social problems more and create new technologies of public communications to better societal harmony.”

Naumov identified the organization’s professional objectives as:

  • Reducing the dependence on the habit to apply a formal approach to the knowledge and understanding of public opinion, and preventing any attempts to manipulate public opinion when such actions are unethical and/or not in the public interests,
  • Striving to put mutual respect of each other’s interests in all interactions by individuals and organizations, whether in person or through other forms of communications including social media, and
  • Raising work standards for specialists, whose professionalism and culture influence harmonization of all situations in the format of public communications

The two-day session included practitioners and educators from throughout the Russian Federation, with instant two-way translation for foreign guests.

The conference hosted workshops and roundtables in a variety of disciplines, including market trends, media relations, social media, government relations, integrated marketing — the full gamut of disciplines that we practice here in the U.S.  However, the not-for profit and employee communications areas do not yet fully embrace public relations, but it is slowly being recognized.

“The profession here has reached a level of sufficiency and is growing now more qualitatively rather than just quantitatively,” Borisov said.

PR professionals are found in cities throughout Russia, from the western border in Europe to the Siberia’s Pacific coast. Borisov feels there is still some naivety about public relations in cities outside of Moscow, where the profession is “more sophisticated, aggressive and cynical.”

Both Corbett and I were impressed with the sophistication we saw in many of the practitioners we met from the smaller CIS markets.

The major growth areas in Russian PR are government, manufacturing and education. However, obstacles impeding the industry’s growth include a lack of industry standards, low level of business transparency and an absence of self regulation or industry legislation.

“Educational standards continue to improve, with nearly 200 universities and institutes now offering degrees in public relations, including many now having masters programs related to public relations,” said Andrei Silantiev, vice-rector of MGIMO for public relations. He succeeded Borisov as dean of the School of International Communications.

Nadia Skripnikova heads the PR program at Voronezh State University, one of the main universities in Central Russia. She said that being a journalist is no longer qualification enough to enter the field and today’s employers want people who are professionally trained. This includes a broad range of education, encompassing psychology, political science, sociology and traditional communication disciplines.

“The growth in PR education has been phenomenal over the past ten years, but there is a deficiency in qualified teachers who fully understand the practical application of theory to the real-world practice of public relations,” Skripnikova said. To remedy this problem, she plans to incorporate more management studies in with the PR curriculums. She also wants to prepare students for changes from mass media dominance to social media and other emerging trends in public communication.

The PR profession continues to evolve

A good example of the bright new stars in the Russian profession is Natalia Gurova, a vice president for the Moscow-based Newton-PR. She sees continued growth in the profession, particularly because more small- and middle-sized businesses are recognizing the value of public relations. “There is a growing need for specialists within the profession, such as analysts, event planners and internal communicators,” she says. “Now everyone is trained as generalist.” 

Among the foreign guests at the Moscow conference was Richard Linning of the United Kingdom and president of the International Public Relations Association. He has visited Russia since 1974 when it was still the Soviet Union.

“The most obvious change in the Russian PR [profession] over the past 20 years is the growth of confidence in local practitioners vis-à-vis their international counterparts,” he said. “The age of paternalism is over. Russian practitioners are quite capable of practicing in a complicated social-political-economic climate without oversight from outside.” 

Paavo Vasala, a Finnish pioneer in social media in Europe and a frequent visitor to Moscow, said, “Democracy, the evolution of market economy and the Internet era are the biggest influencers on growing the profession in Russia.”

In a conference workshop, Vasala described how digital marketing and public relations were increasing throughout Russia, where there are more than 70 million Internet users. “Public relations activities demand the ability to adapt to rapidly changing technologies of influential social media.”

The philosophy of Naumov and many of his colleagues from throughout the Russian Federation mirrors that of we who take a global perspective of our profession and of mankind — an intense desire to help build greater understanding and harmony in our diverse society.
 

Joe S. Epley, APR, Fellow PRSA Joe Epley, APR, Fellow PRSA, is semi-retired and living in the North Carolina mountains near Tryon. He was the 1991 president of PRSA and the 2008 Gold Anvil recipient.



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