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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

13 Newspapers Caught Red-Handed

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A little-known public relations company dropped a bombshell on the Moscow media community Monday by releasing a list of newspapers that took money for running an advertisement of a fictitious electronics store disguised as a news story.

Although the practice of zakazukha is well known among Moscow journalists and advertising agencies, the company called Promaco PR/CMA broke ground by giving out for the first time the sums, invoice numbers and photo-copied clips from newspapers that swallowed its bait.

"We did not want to frame the publications or quarrel with them," Promaco general director Kirill Semyonov said at a news conference, where he was verbally attacked by a packed audience of fellow spin doctors and journalists.

"We want to stop the routine violation of the law on advertising," he said.

Semyonov said that when the St. Petersburg agency started to work on the Moscow market, it came under pressure both from newspapers and its clients to do what the others do — place paid-for articles. The agency's attempts to prove that PR business is about communicating to the media what is newsworthy about a certain company and that such a service can only be trusted when it is done free of charge led nowhere, he said.

"Our clients were telling us: Unlike you, your competition can guarantee us a certain number of publications in certain newspapers," said Rania Ibatullina, director of the agency's Moscow office.

This month, the agency came up with a project titled "An Investigation Into Black PR" to promote its own name and reveal the degree of official corruption on the media market. It invented a fictitious company, DG-Tsentr, which supposedly was about to open a $1.5 million, five-story store called Svetofor near Tulskaya metro to sell electronics from non-existent manufacturers, and sent out a press release to 21 leading publications.

One newspaper, Kommersant publishing house's Klient, simply ran the press release for free. Magazines Dengi, Expert, Kompanii and the Vedomosti newspaper said they needed additional information to run a story and in the end stayed clear. Newspapers Izvestia and Segodnya and the Itogi magazine said they were ready to run the information marked as advertising.

But 13 newspapers and magazines referred the PR firm to their commercial departments and negotiations started.

Fees for publication varied widely. Tribuna was paid 3,860 rubles, or about $135, while the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, through its private "information and analytical agency" Politika, charged 57,320 rubles, or more than $2,000, for the story it ran on the back page. Such leading publications as Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Noviye Izvestia were among those who took the bait.

The list lumped together newspapers that ran a story about Svetofor without distinguishing it from other news stories and papers such as Vremya MN and Obshchaya Gazeta, which put the story in a box. Although the distinction was likely lost on most readers, according to guidelines printed in the newspapers' masthead, a box indicates advertising.

To accusations that they ran a "dirty provocation," Promaco managers said they were aware that they were violating the law by distributing false information. They said they were willing to pay a fine if the Anti-Monopoly Ministry, which regulates the advertising business, finds the publications that took payment guilty as well. They also apologized to readers who wasted their time looking for the store at a nonexistent address.

Many in the audience at Monday's press conference got angry. The editor of Izvestia's media page, Pavel Bardin, accused Promaco of carrying out "black PR" in order to undermine its competition and wondered who had paid the agency to carry out the project.

"You have framed all your colleagues from the PR industry," yelled one person at the press conference. "Like a lousy A-student, you tattle-tale to the teacher: They are the ones who broke the window!" said another.

Noviye Izvestia editor Igor Golembiovsky said Promaco's action was a "cheap provocation."

"That is the end of their business," he said. "No one is going to deal with them anymore."

Golembiovsky — who was portrayed as a fighter for free press when he left Izvestia after it was taken over by Uneximbank and LUKoil in 1997 — said what the newspaper had done was absolutely legal because the transaction was done on the books and the relevant taxes were paid. He also said that it makes no difference for the average reader whether a story is printed for money or not. "Our reputation is not going to suffer a tiny bit," he said in a telephone interview.

Kommersant newspaper quoted Komsomolskaya Pravda editor Vladimir Sungorkin as saying that he apologized for publishing the story but he would not censor the newspaper's employees involved because the reason was too small.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta editor Vitaly Tretyakov refused to comment. But in an official reaction due to appear in the newspaper Tuesday, the editors said they regretted the publication and the relevant journalists will be punished.

They welcomed Promaco's initiative but said it was the public relations and advertising agencies that were responsible for the practice because, in cases when a newspaper proposes running formal advertising, agencies refuse and say they will easily sell the zakazukha to other publications. The agencies also say they can easily find a journalist within the newspaper who will accept cash for an article. "It turns out that honesty and abiding by the law are not only unprofitable, but the opposite — they lead to a loss in competition for advertising," Nezavisimaya Gazeta editors said in their statement, which was provided Monday to The Moscow Times.

The editors proposed that the Press Ministry and Anti-Monopoly Ministry meet with media, PR and advertising executives to come up with an industry-wide agreement on fair competition.

Neither ministry made any official comment on Promaco's action. Kommersant said that Press Minister Mikhail Lesin questioned Promaco's motives and methods, but said that the ministry was ready to join the discussion later. "Black PR in Russia is first of all political PR," the newspaper quoted Lesin as saying. "But unfortunately, no one has been caught doing it yet."

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, brushed off accusations that Promaco had gone too far.

"When someone works as a sewage cleaner, he can hardly keep his clothes clean," Yakovenko said. "Good job, guys, for stirring up this dung heap."

He said that by routinely accepting payment for coverage, journalists are to a large degree responsible for the gross situation on the media market and for the government's attempts to regulate media further.

"Today, it is impossible to place positive information about a political or economic subject for free," Yakovenko said. "Public trust in the media is at the bottom. Attempts to introduce restrictive amendments to the law on mass media is not just the idiocy of legislators, but society's response to the actions of journalists themselves."

Yakovenko proposed a round table of media executives and advertisers to discuss the subject in March.