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What PR People Can Learn From Vladimir Putin

It raised eyebrows when Russia seemed to seize the communications initiative on Syria, picking up on a stray comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to call for a diplomatic solution to the mess. But it’s downright shocking that Russian president Vladimir Putin makes his case with a bylined editorial in The New York Times.

In calling for restraint in the use of military force in Syria, Putin suggests that the use of poison gas that killed thousands was actually perpetrated by Syrian rebels – an accusation that the White House immediately shot down. Yet Putin’s reasonable tone and elegant language makes such a “false flag” attack almost credible.

But it’s in his final paragraph that the former KGB strongman really lets loose and shows his communications chops. In a direct response to President Obama’s Tuesday address, he challenges the concept of American exceptionalism. Pushing back against Obama’s earlier reference to what makes our nation different, Putin warns that it is “extremely dangerous” to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional and reminds us that “we are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Astonishing, considering the source. The U.S. response to the editorial has been cynical, to say the least, but from a communications perspective, the piece is instructive. Putin and his PR handlers have followed a formula that can be very effective when making a case in public.

Find common ground.  The Russian president opens by reminding us of historic bonds between our two nations and our many shared accomplishments. He even tries to soften us up by mentioning the Nazis.

Reframe the argument. Putin describes the Syrian conflict not as a struggle for democracy – that most precious of American ideals – but as an ethnic and religious war abetted by mercenaries.

Sow seeds of doubt and fear.  In a calm, reasoned tone, Putin suggests that the U.S. version of events does not correspond to reality. More skillfully, he expresses concern for the consequences of Syrian military action.

Exploit division. As if on behalf of the American people, Putin questions why we would want to “repeat the mistakes” of the past by becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Of course, this echoes many domestic discussions, and he knows that very well.

Invoke core values.  He then cites the prized American ideal of equality for all people, our most cherished core value, and turns it upside down to make his case for non-intervention. Even bolder, he invokes America’s tradition of religious freedom and our Judeo-Christian faith tradition by mentioning God.

Bypass intermediaries. In his editorial, Putin mounts his appeal directly to the American people. That’s another reason why his closing paragraph, as disingenuous as it may be, is so resonant.

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