Selling the message: How PR firm helped place controversial Putin op-ed

CBS

(CBS News) There is anger in Washington about Russian President Vladimir Putin's opinion piece on Syria, which ran in Thursday's New York Times.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he is "insulted" by it, and Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said it made him want to throw up.

The column made its way into the newspaper with the help of leading American public relations firm Ketchum, which has offices across the globe and represents some of the world's most prominent brands, as well as the Russian Federation. The firm was responsible for getting Putin's editorial placed in the Times.

A Ketchum official told CBS News that Putin, along with some in his inner circle, wrote the op-ed. But Ketchum offices in Moscow, London, and Washington all worked to get it published.

It's all part of the media and public relations work Ketchum has been doing for the Russian Federation since 2006.

According to Justice Department filings, Ketchum was paid $1.9 million by the Russian government during the first six months of this year. It got another $3.7 million for public relations work for Gazprom, the oil and gas company controlled by the Kremlin.

Peter Mirijanian, a communications consultant, told CBS News, "I look at these huge contracts that a lot of these firms have with foreign governments and scratch your heads and go -- what exactly are they doing?"

The firm said it publicized Putin's speeches and promoted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. It also operates the website ThinkRussia.com, and its related Twitter and YouTube accounts.

Mirijanian said, "What else are they doing to deflect some of the criticism of the country's human rights record? Those are the kinds of questions -- it's beyond just getting an op-ed in the New York Times."

There is nothing illegal about Ketchum's activities. In fact, among the powerful lobbying and public relations firms on Washington's K street, it's business as usual. The firm Brown Lloyd James arranged for a glossy profile of Syria's first lady in the pages of Vogue -- just as her husband, Bashar Assad, was unleashing his fury on protestors there.

Mirijanian said, "It is commonplace now to represent foreign governments on both lobbying and public relations, so I don't think it raises as many eyebrows as you would think."

In Washington, it's also one place Democrats and Republicans find common ground. For example, Bob Livingston, a former Republican House speaker, and Tony Podesta, a 1996 Clinton campaign operative, joined forces to lobby for deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Crawford added on "CBS This Morning," "Of course, that's just one example. We could sit here all morning talking about all the firms and former politicians who are making lots of money off foreign governments and those governments, of course, are willing to pay because they're hoping to influence policy or public opinion here in America."

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