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Business Success in The NIS:
The Essential Role of Public Relations
By Dr. Ronald R. Pope
Published in BISNIS Bulletin, June 2000

Nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of market reforms, a substantial percentage of the public in the former Soviet Union is frequently wary of foreign businessmen. Despite this attitude, and other obstacles, there clearly is tremendous opportunity in this emerging market. However, working successfully in the region requires, among other things, overcoming the population's "greedy capitalist" view of foreign businessmen. To earn the respect of the people they are dealing with and the acceptance of the local population, foreigners must effectively present themselves as "good neighbors," rather than exploitative capitalists who have come to town only to take advantage of cheap labor and bribe-taking officials.

Russian culture, in particular, puts a premium on "personal relationships." Specifically, many Russians are not inclined to do even the jobs they are being paid to do for "just anyone." Embedded in this culture is the view that it is best to "do favors" for those who are known to reciprocate. In other words, in dealing one-on-one with Russians, it helps a great deal to have a reputation for contributing to the welfare of others. That way Russians will not feel they are "wasting their time" when they do something for you.

The Importance of Good PR

Responding effectively to these cultural factors requires a well thought out public relations campaign that takes into account the idiosyncrasies of post-Communist society and the specific needs of each community. The key to long-term success lies in identifying needs and formulating an approach whereby the community as a whole will benefit from your presence, not just those lucky enough to be hired by your firm—or the local businesses that you are working with. In this way, the community will have a vested interest in your success—and it will be much easier to obtain needed assistance when problems inevitably arise. An added, and potentially very valuable, benefit of a positive public image is that local officials will find it more difficult to ignore your legitimate interests or to demand bribes.

An effective public relations campaign does not have to be expensive. For example, linking local doctors and nurses with their Western counterparts can result in improvements in medical care in the host community, in part through a significant boost in morale. You can make an inexpensive direct contribution by including donated medical equipment with any shipments you make. Providing used computers to local schools, especially where no computers currently exist, can also be quite helpful.

Many large companies that have entered the Russian market have already undertaken major public relations programs, but this type of effort is also suitable for small- and medium-sized companies. Since building a model American home in Vladimir (located about 110 miles northeast of Moscow) in 1992, my company, Serendipity, has acquired substantial experience with not-for-profit projects, including a successful American English and culture program and assistance to the local basketball program. For example,
Serendipity organized a trip to Vladimir by an experienced U.S. high school basketball coach. More than 50 Russian coaches attended the coach's main clinic, and everyone agreed that it was an excellent program. As a result of these "outreach" efforts, Serendipity has developed a variety of contacts, is given a fair hearing when it needs assistance, and is treated with respect, whether by the city gas company or by the judicial system. In short, people do not feel they are wasting their time when they assist us.

This report is provided courtesy of the Business Information Service for the Newly Independent States (BISNIS)


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