On the vanguard of PR

Issue Number: 
Natalia Leibina

A decade ago the field of public relations was a revelation for Russians. Sergei Mikhailov started his career at the dawn of the PR era in this country and within 10 years managed to found one of the most successful PR agencies here: Mikhailov&Partners. The Leader interviewed him to find out what it is like to be an innovator. In the conversation Sergei Mikhailov told us about the creation of the agency and shared his future business plans.

Sergei Mikhailov was one of the first graduates of the public-relations department at the Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO). He spoke to The Leader about how he became the Managing Partner of a celebrated PR agency whose clients include such companies as Motorola, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Norilsk Nickel.

Public relations was a very new field of business in Russia in the beginning of the ‘90s. How did you come to make a career in it?
I suppose I am a second-generation professional, as my parents used to be occupied in propaganda. I was one of the first graduates of the PR department of MGIMO. It was my dean, Alexander Borisov, who was actually the father of PR in Russia; he introduced PR here. I got very interested in it and after graduation my first partner Medinsky and I went to the States, where we listened to lectures and talked to people. We came back with the idea to develop this business in Russia. So we founded the Russian Association of Public Relations and started telling everybody about PR.

What was the reaction of the post-Soviet people to the appearance of a new profession?
When it was all starting, nobody really understood what exactly it was about. A very common situation was when somebody from the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party would say: “I have been doing the same thing all my life, but I didn’t know it was called ‘public relations.”’ But, of course, he had not been doing anything like that, because as Americans say PR is all about business and there was no market before in this country.

Looking back, are you happy now that you have chosen this road?
This was definitely the right choice for me and today I can say that I am absolutely happy in my profession. It is very exciting and every day something new is happening. You know how many people dream of being able to live several lives in one. Well, PR gives this opportunity. Going through crises together with our clients, we actually live many lives, experience many events, witness many cases. I find this fascinating.

Your company is called Mikhailov&Partners. How did you find these partners?
When I started looking for qualified personnel, I realized they didn’t exist then at all, and even now it is a big problem to find good PR specialists. So the first people were chosen pretty chaotically. Then, together with the Americans, we decided to make a special school, where we had about 20 students of whom we later employed 80 percent. And most of them are still working here. Those few who have left and gone to other companies form a very strong core of the PR specialists today.

What qualities should a person possess in order to be employed at Mikhailov&Partners?
The main quality is the ability to think. The rest is communication. This person has to be able to work in a team and understand what a common victory is all about. And, of course, a good command of English is necessary, plus a serious education in one of the related professions like marketing or advertising. The problem is that in Russia one cannot get a good-quality education in PR today simply because there are no PR professors. There are, for example, professionals who are capable of describing case studies, but all of them are already engaged in their own businesses.

Your company has many world-class clients and you have been honored with a number of awards in the field of PR. How do you evaluate this success?
I can say that Mikhailov&Partners is growing now. The agency was built following American examples, and consequently it is very easy for us to communicate with Western companies as well as with those Russian companies that follow Western standards of doing business.

I believe that our clients appreciate the fact that we are very flexible, as we try to look at what we are doing through their eyes. We have come to the conclusion that a specialist in communications must be, to a certain extent, a professional in the client’s business in order to understand the latter’s aims. So we try to integrate as much as we can with companies we work with in helping them solve their business problems.

Among your clients there are many foreign corporations. Are there any differences in working with Russian and Western companies?
There used to be a big difference, because Western companies had more specific goals. But the situation has changed and today about 60 percent of our client list consists of Russian companies. I find it more interesting to work with them, because Russian companies make decisions here without having to coordinate them with a Western office and the tasks that they ask for are large-scale.

There are two fields of public relations, corporate PR and political PR. Which one do you personally find more interesting?
On the wall in our negotiations room there is hanging a gratitude award from Boris Yeltsin dating back to his last election campaign. But we never actually did political consulting at all. Then, in 1996 we were, for example, working on a very positive project called “The Heath of the Nation is Everyone’s Health” that had nothing to do with politics. The main reason is that almost all of our corporate clients are against it, because in Russia working in the field of politics is very connected with lobbyism, and our clients want to work with independent consultants.

Besides it is quite a separate niche of PR, where a circle of professionals has already formed. And their job is very different from corporate consulting, as political PR is a very closed sphere of business and we are very open. To tell you the truth I don’t understand the financial flows there, who is paying for what, and if I don’t understand it I don’t work there.

Does being a professional in PR help in your private life?
Of course. Knowing how to communicate helps to get acquainted with people, to talk to policemen, for instance, to obtain what seems impossible. And it is a powerful weapon; with a working knowledge of PR, you can convince a person into anything. When there are difficult situations in the family — let’s say we have ordered furniture and it has not been delivered — then my wife lets me negotiate, because I understand how a dialog develops, what my position is and what I must say. In eight out of 10 cases I win and in the others I lose because I’m facing a professional as good as myself.

Being at the head of a quickly developing company, you must have many dreams. What are you planning in the future for Mikhailov&Partners?
My dream is to make this company absolutely liquid and have it enter the stock market. I think it is stupid to try to outpace everybody else: I only want to make us one of the best companies in Russia. In the modern world, there can never be one leader. If there is Coca-Cola — there will be Pepsi. By intending to become one of the leaders, I want to prove that it is possible to work openly here, to work decently and pay people decently. I want to show that you can exist legally and prosper in Russia.