Russia-Georgia: Who won the information war?

Russia decisively won the war against Georgia, but on the international stage, it was Georgia that won the information battle against Moscow. The military action was backed by a large segment of Russian public opinion. This means that, on a domestic level, the Kremlin authorities came out strengthened. However, internationally, Russia did not organize a powerful information campaign as one would have thought in order to defend its stance. At least that’s my humble opinion as I watched from Washington, DC the continuous coverage of the crisis. The result has been that Russia’s image has been seriously damaged, especially in countries such as the United States.

Georgia did the opposite. Its young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, immediately understood that the battle would not only be waged with rifles and tanks, but also with microphones, so he quickly went into action. Saakashvili didn’t only study in the former Soviet Union, but also in the United States. He has a law degree from Columbia University in New York. He lived in the United States for several years, understands very well the power of the media in this country and in addition to other languages, he speaks English fluently.

Georgia’s president didn’t waste any time and became immediately available to all US media outlets that wanted to listen to him. He also gave interviews to journalists from other countries, especially from Europe. He gave his point of view in a simple and plain language that anybody could understand. He spoke of agression, concentration camps, a holocaust and ethnic cleansing by the Russian Army. He compared the current Russian leaders with Stalin and said that Georgia’s cause was one of democracy against dictatorship, a cause that everyone should support. A message that he repeated constantly. Tirelessly. Every day. On live television.

Russia, on the other hand, didn’t understand how important it was to effectively convey abroad its point of view. Saakashvili practically monopolized the message on the airwaves and also on the Internet. Pro Saakashvili organizations immediately posted their support on the Web. Posters, articles, pictures, blogs. 

You name it.  Only once in a while did the Russian ambassador show up at the United Nations to speak on behalf of Moscow. No doubt he was a very skilled diplomat and a very eloquent spokesperson. But his press appearances were very few. Some US media also interviewed politicians in Moscow, but as in the case of the ambassador their appearances were very sporadic. Russia never understood that it should have had an army of English-speaking functionaries available 24/7 to the US, European and worldwide news organizations. The objective would be clear: to counterpoint what the Georgian president was saying.

Moscow should have been proactive. They should have called continously all the international media to give their point of view about what was happening, which was completely different from Mikheil Saakashvili’s. And not doing this was a grave mistake. Why? Because Georgia’s president was extremely effective and with his continous interventions in the media, was able to make his message the dominant one, for example in the United States. The result: his version of events was, on a popular level, the most accepted one. In the meantime, the Russians were nowhere to be found in the media.

I emphasize that this reflection is not about who was at fault in the war or who started it, but only about how the message was managed by both sides. From my point of view, Mikheil Saakashvili took advantage of every second given to him by the press and promoted his cause extremely well. Russia, on the other hand, didn’t know how to effectively react before the international public opinion. It didn’t offer spokespersons, it wasn’t proactive in distributing its message and it was never able to defend in an efficient and continous way its decisions before the world. If the Kremlin had a communication strategy, I never saw it.

It is true that Vladimir Putin and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev spoke a few times very effectively in front of the cameras when they said that they were only responding to an act of agression by Georgia. However, the Kremlin cannot expect that the international audience is going to be watching television 24/7 waiting for these few ocassions when the Russian leaders gave their point of view.  That message cannot be expressed only two or three times. It has to be repeated over and over to the point of exhaustion to ensure it is heard. Georgia did it, Russia did not.

In a globalized world such as ours and with a subject as important as this one, it is not enough to believe that you are right. You have to know how to communicate your point of view. Russian authorities vindicated themselves before the Russian people, but they lost the battle to successfully share their message with millions of common people in countries such as the United States.

And that brings negative consequences for Russia. Europe is talking about sanctions against Moscow. Poland signed a missile treaty which it had previously been hesitant to join. Former Soviet republics put pressure on NATO to join the organization. Many US politicians are saying that Russia is becoming a new threat for the United States’ national security and that measures have to be taken against Moscow. How much of this could Moscow have avoided with a massive and efficient public relations campaign? Did the Kremlin handle this crisis well?

By: Pablo Gato, Gato Communications

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2 Responses to “Russia-Georgia: Who won the information war?”

  1. Merci del Toro Says:

    Excellent overview of another aspect of this international conflict.

  2. Edie Vaughan Says:

    Excellent overview of how important it is to get your message out. you’ve covered not only that aspect but the fact that you have to have a well-planned strategy for putting out your side of the story so that it does not get misinterpreted. You also have to know how to use your resources and always stay on message. As you’ve clearly stated wars can be fought on many platforms.

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