The Evolution of Public Relations in Russia: from Smear Campaigns to Communication Strategies

December 12, 2014

The public relations sector in Russia is relatively young and significantly differs from PR in Europe and the US. It came into existence in the turmoil of the early 1990s and had to develop during a period of smear campaigns, when politicians and corporations used PR instruments to discredit their rivals.

The people’s trust in public relations was undermined in the very beginning by such campaigns: "PR specialist" virtually became a swear word as well as a synonym to "liar". However, the relative stability that was established in the early 2000s triggered further development of the public relations sector in a more positive direction. Universities opened PR departments that trained highly qualified specialists, and public relations management became a respectable profession. By that time, PR agencies gained enough experience to develop a PR ethics code. Now, the public relations sector in Russia has finally been established, and a strong professional community has been formed.

What is the current situation? In 2010, the volume of the PR market in Russia reached almost $2.38 billion; fees of reputable PR agencies totaled approximately $3-10 million, and every year this amount is still increasing. In 2011, 37% of Russian companies allocated larger budget shares to public relations support than in the previous year. The average annual growth of this market segment is approximately 30%, mostly due to new PR products that are being introduced to the market. Several years ago, public relations in Russia mostly implied working with the mass media, holding press conferences and corporate events, while today it involves creation of well-thought communication strategies, reputation research, social media marketing and other up-to-date techniques.

However, there are some problems in Russian PR market. One of them is that many companies confuse PR with advertising, and their marketing department employees also perform the functions of public relations managers. Moreover, such employees often have to achieve marketing objectives set forth by company management, and nobody cares whether such goals are what the company actually needs. In this situation, it is virtually impossible to work out and consistently implement a good public relations strategy. Consequently, such companies can lose valuable market opportunities.

However, a good number of businesses still prefer to use the services of specialized PR agencies, but the mentality of Russian customers complicates cooperation: they expect an overnight miracle and quickly become disappointed. Their motto is: “We want it to be done yesterday, perfectly and inexpensively!” However, any efficient strategy of reputation building implies months of scrupulous and creative PR work: apart from attraction of the target audience’s attention to the brand, it involves building harmonious relations with various social groups, organization of newsworthy events, image management and many other tasks. It takes time, but results in customers’ loyalty and commercial success. Is this not what every company wants to achieve?

“Our customers often want to have everything at once,” says Marina Maslovskaya, director of SoftPressRelease PR agency. “Very few of them understand that their goal cannot be achieved in a week. Most people think that PR means publications in top publications, high brand awareness and increased sales; in fact, implementation of a public relations strategy is a slower process and takes at least half a year. If a company is developing dynamically, and if it takes part in various field-specific events, releases new products, tries to be closer to the target audience and actively informs the public about it, such a company is on the right track. With the help of a competent PR specialist, it will achieve the desired results: a good reputation, loyal customers, and higher profit.”

Research results from Harvard University business school confirm this explicitly. They show that over the last 11 years, companies from all over the world, which concentrated on building their reputation, increased their income by 682%, profit by 756%, and the number of their staff grew by 282%. In contrast, companies that ignored reputation issues showed the following results: 166%, 1% and 36% respectively. It is hard to escape the conclusion that PR support is a very efficient way of increasing brand awareness and, subsequently, company income.

Yet what can we say about prospects of foreign PR agencies in Russia? According to research, Russian and foreign public relation companies use different techniques and methods. The “Western” approach is more formalized, as opposed to the Russian one, which is based on intuition rather than on methodology. It should be noted, though, that some Russian agencies try to work in a more rational way and master “Western” techniques.

Obviously, Russian PR companies have some competitive advantages: they know the peculiarities of their market segment, as well as their customers’ mentality; therefore, they better understand the needs of their target audience. Moreover, they have certain contacts in the right places, and their services cost significantly less.

Nevertheless, foreign PR companies are still able to meet the competition in the Russian market, since they have more expertise and use cutting-edge PR technologies. Moreover, they treat their customers with more responsibility, and their work process is usually well-arranged and very effective. Foreign agencies can take advantage of the fact that the Russian PR segment has not yet developed clear standards, and it entails unreliability and bureaucracy. As for the market breakdown, at present, political consultation prevails in Russian public relations, comprising about 60-70% of PR services. The other 30-40% is divided between social and business PR services.

To sum up, the public relations sector in Russia has significant potential for further development. The analysis of its peculiarities has shown that foreign PR companies can enter the Russian market and successfully compete with Russian agencies, if their high prices are justified by the rational approach, reliability and efficiency.

Оригинальный текст Steven R. Van Hook