Recently, it became known that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is a client of the global public relations firm Ketchum. Public relations students everywhere did a collective double take — a public relations agency can have a world leader as a client?
We expect Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian to hire publicists, and we know that companies hire public relations professionals to aid in reputation and crisis management. But when it is a president instead of a celebrity or CEO we are confused and even skeptical. Why? Maybe it’s time that has changed. What do celebrities, CEOs, and world leaders all have in common? They are public figures who often have to communicate with large audiences, albeit for different reasons.
The digital age has permanently redefined the way people communicate. Today, people get their news from Twitter feeds instead of newspapers. Organizations, businesses, individuals, publications, and news networks have adapted to the changes brought on by social media. World leaders have also begun to adapt: 66 heads of state have verified accounts on Twitter; President Obama has 36.9 million followers on Twitter; the leader of Syria has an Instagram account.
Communication is vital for world leaders. They make decisions that have the potential to alter the lives of millions of people, and therefore they need a way to communicate with these people. Why wouldn’t world leaders turn to the professionals whose job it is to stay up to date with communication technology and practices? Public relations firms specialize in connecting organizations and individuals with their audiences, whether those audiences are the media, fans, consumers, or the citizens of a nation.
The concept of public relations firms representing heads of state may signal a change in the role public relations plays in government and the way world leaders communicate with the people of the world. In the very least, it explains how Putin got an op-ed in the The New York Times.