Kremlin hires Western PR firm before G-8 summit

The Kremlin has hired a leading Western public relations firm to improve foreign media coverage of the July Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg an unprecedented step for Russia . Kremlin spokesman Alexander Smirnov told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the government had decided to employ a multi-agency team led by U.S.-based firm Ketchum in order to more effectively get across its message to Western media.

"The idea is to improve our communications strategy using the experience of a Western PR agency. In Russia , we are preparing seriously for the G-8 summit," he said. Russia , which was admitted to the elite club of the world's most industrialized nations in 2002, is chairing the G-8 for the first time this year, cementing its status as a leading global power.

But Russia has come under heavy Western criticism for measures to tighten control over non-governmental organizations, seen as part of a general trend of democratic backsliding, with some U.S politicians even calling for Moscow to be expelled from the G-8. It also faced questions about its reliability as an energy supplier after cutting off gas to Ukraine in a New Year's dispute that also disrupted deliveries to Europe , which gets 25 percent of its gas from Russia .

Recent blunt warnings by the state gas monopoly OAO Gazprom that it could focus on new markets outside Europe after protests at a rumored takeover bid for Britain 's largest gas distributor only reinforced concerns about European reliance on Russian gas. A senior Kremlin official, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying by the Vedomosti business daily on Tuesday that the Ukraine gas conflict ostensibly about pricing but widely interpreted by Western media as a clumsy attempt to put pressure on Ukraine 's Western-leaning government showed the need to sharpen Russian PR skills.

"We explained our point of view then, but no one listened to us. Maybe if we had worked then with a major PR agency it would have all turned out differently," he said. Ketchum's clients include U.S firms Kodak, Pepsi, FedEx and Procter and Gamble. It said that it had won the Kremlin contract along with European PR agency GPlus and Gavin Anderson in Japan .

"We look forward to working closely with the Presidency of the G-8 to raise awareness of G-8 priorities which are so important to the world today," Raymond L. Kotcher, Ketchum senior partner and chief executive officer, said in a statement posted on the company's Web site. Ketchum said the task would be to ensure a high level of logistical and communications support at the summit and to promote the Russian G-8 presidency's three priority issues energy security, combating the spread of infectious diseases and improving education.

Former Kremlin deputy chief of staff Alexei Volin said the decision to seek Western assistance was remarkable. "This is the first time that Russia at a government level has decided to employ a major Western PR company, although Russian business has been doing this for a long time already," he said, according to Vedomosti. But Volin warned that even a slick PR operation would not succeed in overcoming critical Western media coverage "because of the inability of most Russian officials to communicate with the media", reports the AP.

N.U.