A Top Political Consultant Gives the New Media-Wise Kremlin Advice—Without Charge
After decades of apparent indifference to world opinion, Soviet officials suddenly seem to be closing the public relations gap with the U.S. Last month the Russians took a large ad in the New York Times to reproduce a Pravda editorial on arms control. In July they caught Reagan Administration officials flat-footed when they declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, timed to begin on the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. At a diplomatic conference in Helsinki, a young, vigorous Soviet delegation led by newly appointed Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, 57, outhustled its American counterparts in winning propaganda points. In prompt and informative on-the-record press conferences, the Soviets upstaged U.S. officials, who were tardy and often elliptic during background briefings.
"At Helsinki the Soviets succeeded in making the American government look as if it were on the defensive," says Democratic political consultant Robert Squier, 50, whose clients won more elections last year than those of any other professional image maker. With President Reagan, 74, scheduled to meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, this November, Squier discussed with Washington Bureau Chief Garry Clifford the new public relations efforts of the U.S.S.R. and speculated on how Gorbachev might go about further improving the Kremlin's image.
How does Gorbachev's approach differ from that of his predecessors?
Traditionally the Soviets have relied on brute strength and tough rhetoric. Who can forget Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the U.N.? More recently the only media events they were sending us were state funerals. But now they have a young leader who understands that how his wife dresses can be as important in affecting public opinion as where he bases his missiles. So far Gorbachev has proved to be very smart by making himself and his wife available for televised photo opportunities, in which they can show themselves in the most charming manner possible without having to answer any questions.
That sounds like the kind of game at which media-wise American politicians would have a distinct advantage.
Perhaps, except we have a Secretary of State whom it would be difficult to pick out of a lineup of old-fashioned Soviet leaders at Red Square. Something must be done about George Shultz. He needs to lose 60 pounds. He's got to burn the gray and brown suits and get rid of those Neville Chamberlain glasses. A hairpiece is essential. And every morning upon waking he should be given two good lines of copy, even if that is what he repeats all day long. I suggest the Reagan Administration draft Mike Deaver, who did such a good job of image making for the President in his first term, and put him in charge of public relations for Shultz.
Should Gorbachev seek more exposure in Western media?
The first thing he should do is to call a few reporters into his office for an informal press conference without TV cameras. The TV people will scream about being left out, but it would give Gorbachev an opportunity to get comfortable fielding questions from the general press. Later, when he is ready for interviews on American television, the place to start would be on the morning shows. There the segments are usually no more than five-to seven-minutes long, which would allow Gorbachev to control the agenda more than he could in a longer session. If he appeared on a half-hour program, he would get 20 minutes of fun and games questions. But there would still be time to ask about Afghanistan, and that is what would make news.
Are there some immediate changes you would recommend for Gorbachev?
The great thing about American politicians is that they can wrap themselves in the flag. But any Russian politician trying to appeal to people around the world would not dare wrap himself in his country's flag. Nobody is going to get teary over a field of blood red, with a hammer and a sickle. What they need is a much more yuppie color—a pink or nice light blue—with a white dove in outline.
How about a problem like the birthmark on Gorbachev's head?
The birthmark is a classic. It gives Gorbachev the wonderful look of a man who has a common touch. Everyone can identify and sympathize with a man who has a birthmark as obvious as his. The mistake the Soviets have made is to go to great pains to hide it. They ought to instruct their photographers to show it prominently.
In mounting an international public relations campaign, is there anything about which the Soviets should be wary?
This process is very much a two-way street. If the Soviet Union goes out on the slippery slope of world opinion and exposes itself to tough questions from the world press, it will very quickly find that some of the old ways of doing things can no longer apply. One of the very good things about the U.S. is that we genuinely do care about and are influenced by what others think of us. But it is difficult to operate a totalitarian state in the spotlight of public opinion. Totalitarianism operates best in darkness.
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