Public Relations in a Political Crisis

I have one friend from the country of Georgia, and we were talking on the phone when President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia appeared on NBC News to discuss the recent Georgian crisis. Saakashvili compared Russia’s current actions to those of its predecessor, the Soviet Union, in 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in what was then Czechoslovakia. “Why is he on television?” my friend shouted. “He needs to be running the country, not doing PR!” My friend might be correct, but public relations plays an important role in any political crisis.

Georgia engaged Belgian public relations advisers to herald its cause. Saakashvili has been interviewed on television around the world and penned opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal and European newspapers. Georgians around the world have held protests outside of Russian embassies and the Georgian Olympic team held a candlelight vigil during the Beijing Olympics.

Russia took a different tack during this most recent political crisis. Though the government had also reportedly hired Brussels-based public relations advisers, Russia expended most of its public relations energy at home, internalizing its “promotion” of its side of the story to ensure that Russians are supportive. Reports suggested that most Russians are firmly behind the government and the military.

The United States executed most of its public relations strategy behind the scenes, or at least it seems that way. President Bush certainly didn’t shy away from commenting on the situation or condemning Russia, but because we didn’t have direct military involvement, the U.S. public relations machine was  working quietly.

Utilizing modern public relations tactics is, of course, part of the battle to “win hearts and minds” during a political crisis or conflict. In this particular case, because the lines were so obviously drawn, this was a losing tactic in the areas directly affected by the warring. However, both Georgia and Russia both appeared to win public opinion outside of their borders.

Russia, for example, was vilified by virtually every media outlet and commentator in the world. Oddly, however, there seemed to be a real ambivalence towards what’s going on in Georgia among most populations. This, I believe, was due to Russia’s public relations strategy, which let Georgia scream and shout while the Russian army did what it pleases.

It sounds like an odd strategy, but the reality is that silence sends a message that says, “We’re right and we’re going to prove it.” Whether you believe it or not is another story, but the lack of “noise” coming from the Russian government actually drowned out some of what Georgia was saying–and played well with segments of the population who were against the war in Iraq and inherently distrust governments and the mainstream now.

The ambivalence I wrote about earlier obviously works against Georgia, but Saakashvili’s use of the media was effective. He portrayed his country in a sympathetic light and helped foster the image of Russia as the Soviet Union reborn. He stayed on message during his interviews and basically challenged viewers to do something, anything.

A fair amount of the information coming from Georgian media and government officials did not appear to jibe with what reporters from international news organizations are seeing with their own eyes, which was where public relations efforts failed for Georgia  The region of conflict was remote and lacks infrastructure, which lead to some of the problems. Nonetheless, every inaccurate report coming from Georgian sources worked against the country’s cause.

The seemingly isolated nature of the Georgia-Russia conflict–combined with economic woes in many countries, an ambivalence to or ignorance of international events, and the spectacle of the Olympics–diminished some of the impact of PR coming from both sides. This won’t stop either country from trying its best public relations tactics, but in the end, this particular political crisis is only going to be resolved by guns or in back-rooms by politicians.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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