The Russian attempt to influence the 2016 American presidential election, using what intelligence agencies call “active measures,” has dominated US headlines.
There is, however, the second front in Russia’s effort to shape the hearts and minds of American citizens, and it’s received almost no attention in mainstream US media outlets since the election.
As someone who studies the growth of global public relations, I’ve researched the roles PR firms play in shaping public perceptions of international affairs.
For years, Russia has been involved in public relations campaigns that have been developed and deployed by prominent, US-based, global PR firms – campaigns intended to influence American public opinion and policy in ways that advance Russia’s strategic interests.
Public relations is an industry that seeks to cultivate favourable impressions of corporations, products, individuals or causes. A company or public figure might hire a firm to increase visibility, advance marketing agendas, promote strategic initiatives or manage a crisis.
But things can get tricky when foreign governments get involved. When they hire PR firms to influence public opinion in other countries, they could undermine the domestic values and goals of the targeted nations.
In the 1930s, the PR firm of Ivy Lee – who, along with Edward Bernays, is regarded as a “founding father” of the public relations industry – was accused of circulating Nazi propaganda in the US. In response, Congress enacted the Foreign Agent Registry Act (FARA) in 1938, which required foreign propagandists operating in the U.S. to register with the government. In 1966, FARA was amended to cover people promoting the economic and political interests of their foreign clients.