Russia Hires PR Firm Burson-Marsteller To Help Spin Doping Scandal
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As we head into the Olympics in Rio this summer, there's a question mark hanging over the games. Will Russian athletes be there? Right now, Russia's track and field program is banned from international competition. That's because of a huge doping scandal. Russia does not deny its athletes doped.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In fact, Russia's sports minister just wrote an op-ed for London's Sunday Times and the headline was "Russia Is Sorry And Has Cleaned Up Its Act. Please Let Us Compete In Rio." And that is where Burson-Marsteller comes in. Russia has hired the PR giant to help advance its cause. To hear about how that might work, we've brought in Gene Grabowski. He's a former partner with Burson-Marsteller.
It is pretty clear in this case that the Russian track and field team is guilty. They're not denying it. Why would a PR firm take on what seems to be a hopeless cause?
GENE GRABOWSKI: Well, I'm not privy to what the strategy is. But in this kind of a situation, there's a saying in our business. The three F's are involved - fowl up, 'fess up, fix up. And I think that the fowl up stage is pretty clear. And now it's time to 'fess up and now fix up.
KELLY: So it sounds like if you were on this account, part of your strategy would be looking forward. Look at what's past as past.
KELLY: We're headed to the future.
GRABOWSKI: There's always an apology involved. We're sorry we did this. It was a mistake. But then you move forward. You don't dwell on the mistake.
KELLY: OK. So flush this out a little bit for me - how a good publicist goes about spinning this, particularly in a case like this, where, as we've said, Russia isn't denying that its athletes doped. The facts are out there. Where do you go next?
GRABOWSKI: Well, see I - and I would take issue with the term spinning in this particular case because I think there's an acknowledgment that some mischief - some malfeasance occurred. They're explaining what they have been doing and what they're doing to correct it. And I think that that's where, you know, credibility's going to be tested.
And then they have to look forward. You can trust us. We have learned our lesson. We're moving forward. It's classic. Politicians do it all the time in the United States and even overseas now. And corporations do it. So - nations do it as well.
In situations like these, somebody has to be the villain. Somebody has to be the person who gets the blame or responsibility. It's almost cathartic. The audience that you're playing to, whether it's in the United States or around the world or the Olympic Committee, has to see that somebody's been punished for this.
KELLY: Are there challenges unique to working with Russia?
GRABOWSKI: Yes. You always find out with any client that there are secrets. It's almost like, you know, the longer you spend with a client - it's just like a lawyer with defending a client. Each day and each week, there are new things that you learn that you didn't know on the first day because it was kept from you. And I think that that's one of the things you always encounter when you're dealing with Russia.
There are - you begin with the best of intentions. You ask them to tell you all the details. And you think you're getting the details. You hope you're getting details. But you understand that, as time goes on, there are going to be more things that you learn that you didn't know in the first week.
KELLY: You mentioned it's like a lawyer dealing with their client. I'm thinking my husband's a lawyer, and his clients are never guilty. Sometimes they need a little professional help arriving at the exact version of the truth that they meant to tell you in the first place. Is it the same in the PR world?
GRABOWSKI: To a degree, yes. There's a feeling now, certainly in issues management and communications as opposed to straight-up PR, that every client - with a few exceptions, obviously - deserves to be represented and has a point of view. And I think that's the mindset you have to take into these things.
KELLY: Burson-Marsteller is known for taking on tough cases. We've actually got a piece of tape I want to play and let you respond to. This is Rachel Maddow speaking on MSNBC.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")
RACHEL MADDOW: When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.
KELLY: Gene Grabowski, is there such a thing as an evil client in the world of public relations?
GRABOWSKI: Probably there are. When Rachel Maddow did her diatribe against Burson-Marsteller a few years ago, most people in the communications field were amused because she actually spiked their business because of that. Clients - whether they be governments, whether they be corporate executives, celebrities - who felt that they were wronged and were being villainized in the public now heard of an agency - now heard of an organization that would work with them no matter what the public thought about them. So I think that that's what drove the business. I think that they saw that - here's a firm that's not afraid to work with us.
KELLY: Well, we'll look forward to seeing how this story emerges out of Russia. Gene Grabowski, thank you.
GRABOWSKI: My pleasure. Thank you.
KELLY: Gene Grabowski used to work at Burson-Marsteller, now a partner at KGlobal, a global communications firm here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.