Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Counseling Gazprom

While you were sleeping, the “gas wars” started again in Eastern Europe, just in time for the roughest part of winter. Russia had been threatening to cut off the flow of natural gas through Ukraine to Europe. As of this morning there are six countries going without. (Remember: Gazprom is the huge Russian monopoly; Transneft is its Ukrainian gas transportation counterpart and customer.)

It’s not the first time Russia and Gazprom have played the natgas shutoff card. What is new is that Gazprom has deployed public relations to provide a level of nuance that I haven’t seen before. Read deep and you’ll see the result of intentions made clear in January 2007 when Kommersant.com announced that the Russian energy giant was going to get some PR counsel on its side for a change.

Gavin Anderson & Company is apparently one of Gazprom’s PR counselors. This morning, on the heels of the news about actions resulting from Gazprom’s suspension of specific gas deliveries, Kate Hill, Gavin Anderson’s London Managing Director, was quoted. “People are going to understand,” she said, “that Gazprom is a company with shareholders, and they cannot be expected to keep supplying a good without payment, or without a plan for future payment.”

The FT.com piece provides even more detail: In commercial terms, the question of who is in the right is not straightforward. The dispute involves questions such as how much Ukraine pays Russia for gas; how much Russia pays in transit fees for the gas that goes through Ukraine; how much Russia can charge in late payment fees; and to what extent the falling price of oil should affect the price.

When you read a headline like “Six countries lose Russian gas,” it’s easy to conclude that Russia is using its natural gas to bully Europe again. It’s even easier to note the horrified reactions from many European leaders who accuse Russian and Gazprom of breaking promises.

Study the press coverage carefully, though, and discover and it’s not a huge let’s-pile-on-Russia media onslaught. In fact, there’s a good bit of “he said/she said” going on. Read critically; it will be clear that many news reports are more balanced than at any time in the last several years.

That tells me the public relations firms are doing their job – you and I may not like it but it does demonstrate there are at least two sides to this story. That’s effective counsel at work.


Karen Blanchard, APR said...

Alex will tell you - Any company can face a crisis, and most are judged not by whether it occurred, but by how they responded.

Timely, credible communication in a crisis can make the difference between a momentary setback and lasting damage.

Jamie Roark said...

A better face for Russia but still an unattractive and cold (pardon me) one.

In Bulgaria alone, centralized municipal heating is now compromised during zero temperatures, closing seventy-two schools and fueling widespread hardship.

One PR challenge will be how to counter this image of apparent indifference to human suffering.

In addition to convincing the world that Russia may have a legitimate beef with Ukraine is the need to establish Russia as a country that can be counted on to supply natural gas to its customers. Exactly when can customers expect completion of the two alternate pipeline projects that are reported?

Good PR work getting Russia's argument out there. More work to be done.