Working on the president’s image

Natalya Timakova, the head of Dmitry Medvedev’s press service, lifts the lid on her duties and the personal characteristics of her boss – the Russian President.

Q: What is it like to work for the President?

A: It’s an interesting job. A great responsibility, too. You realize it’s not just about your career, your ambitions, but hopefully you are also helping the president in his work, which is naturally very important.

Q: Does this job take all your time or do you still get some time off?

A: It’s a tricky question. On the one hand, I have regular working hours like everybody else. My day starts at 10 and ends-well, also at 10. But, naturally, you must always be available on the telephone, you must follow the news, you must be aware of what is going on in the media. So, it is a demanding job. What I mean is you can’t just lock your office at 6 p.m. and say, ‘That’s it, the working day’s over.’ But, I think your job as a journalist is also like this. So, you know what I’m talking about. So, actually, I work long hours and have to travel often; but so far, this job has been very interesting.

Q: You were a journalist yourself, does that experience help or hamper your work?

A: Well, actually, I haven’t worked as a journalist for quite some time. I’ve been working in government for almost ten years now. I guess when I was a journalist it was always very interesting for me to learn how the government works, to understand its mechanisms. When I was a journalist, I wanted to learn a lot about it. I wrote a lot about it: how decisions are made, who influences the decision-making process, how do people in government explain the decisions they make. Now I’m on the other side, so many of the things I wrote in the past seem very naïve to me, sometimes even foolish, while with some other things I say, Wow, how come I knew this?

Q: Are there any specific guidelines set out for the presidential press corps?

A: It’s not something special, it’s not much different from what press services of other heads of state around the world do-in fact, it’s similar to any press service. The main thing is to keep the media and, thus, all the people as best informed as possible about what the president does, what decisions he makes, what steps he intends to take on various issues, how he decides on foreign and domestic policy. So, the main goal is to present a complete picture of the president’s activities and to explain them through the media to the Russian people.

Q: The work of the press service: is it more about informing or building the President’s image?

A: Definitely, this is a two-way street. On the one hand, we keep people informed about what the president does; on the other hand, we keep the president informed about what the media thinks about his work. In this sense, we do work on his image.

We closely monitor what the media says. This helps the president to make decisions promptly, to adjust policy based on people’s expectations.

Q: Recently, the president launched a video blog on his website… Something we haven’t seen with other Russian leaders. Does it mean he prefers new technologies over old ones, internet over television?

A: I don’t quite agree with you. I don’t think television is a thing of the past. I don’t think addressing the people on television is no longer relevant. For most of our people, television, not the Internet, is their No. 1 source of information. Definitely Internet users are a very active group: they are interested in politics, interested in what is going on. Of course, these people are generally younger, and it is important for the president that these people understand him, understand what he does and why. This is why the president decided to have a video blog on his Web site. This was his idea. He, himself, uses the Internet quite often. So I think he knows from experience how important it is to work with this group of people. We are still in the early stages with this video blog. I think what we have now is not bad.

The number of registered users is quite high, and there are a large number of those who just visit the site and leave their comments. I think this is a good way to have feedback because through the blog the president can learn directly what people think, what people say about him, the president can hear questions people ask. So, I think we are going to develop this. Of course, it involves some difficulties because it requires a lot of the president’s time-he needs to read through the comments, he needs to maybe consider his future postings but, nonetheless, he thinks it’s interesting and important. So, we are going to develop this.

Q: What are the plans for the blog?

A: We are currently talking to LiveJournal about maybe setting up a forum where people will be able not only to respond to what the president says in his blog but also to discuss among themselves the ideas the president presents in his blog. In other words, this is a work in progress and we are going to develop this aspect of our work.

Q: As the head of the press service – communication is part of your job. Is it difficult to keep confidential information secret?

A: No, it’s not difficult, of course, because this is a part of my job. I just realize that some of the information available to me is for use in my work and not for telling to other people, while some information can be disclosed to the media.

Q: Is Mr. Medvedev a tough boss?

A: Working for a president is never easy because he holds a very responsible office, and his staff should conduct themselves correspondingly. The job they do is not something separate from what the president does. Mr. Medvedev is very strict both with himself and his aides. So, we are working and learning at the same time.

There is no room for complacency; we always try to improve, to do things better, and this is another reason why our job is so interesting.

Q: What kind of relations do you have with your colleagues abroad – for example in the White House?

A: With the new White House spokesman, all our contacts so far have been very formal: I sent him my congratulations on his appointment. But during the G-20 summit in April I think I’ll have a chance to meet him in person. I think this meeting will be important for both of us.

As for Dana Perino, George W. Bush’s spokesperson, we said goodbye to each other during the summit in Peru.

Q: Have you managed to explain to Russia’s international partners Moscow’s concerns about the U.S. Missile Defense plans in Eastern Europe?

A: First this situation with Missile Defence was articulated by the Administration of former President Bush, and now with the new administration of President Obama we receive absolutely different signals about a willingness for dialogue and discussion.

I believe that the dialogue will begin at the summit in London. So at the moment it’s a bit premature to speak about this issue, as with the election of a new President Russia has heard new sounds and now we should wait and understand exactly what Obama’s Administration stands for and how relations will develop.

Q: With the financial crisis gripping the world headlines, what do you do to keep the nation calm?

A: Maybe it’s a bit problematic for me to speak from the economic side – the situation – how and what – but if we speak about what we are doing to inform people, I’d like to say, in particular, about our latest work, I’d rather put it as the President’s latest initiative arising from his desire to, at least once a month, directly address the people on air.

We had such an address three weeks ago, and now we are preparing the President’s next address. I think it’s just what we need right now, in such moments the authorities should explain their doings, they should demonstrate to people that they know what to do, that despite the situation really not being easy, there’s no panic, and those who take decisions promise that they’ll take them at the right time. This new format will probably be a major tool for us to explain what the President is doing, what the government is doing, what the authorities are doing to overcome the problems.

Q: Are Russian politicians good with public relations? What are the things you’d like to change?

A: I believe it must be more open as they lack skills of communicating with the media.

That can be partially explained by Russia’s political experience over the last 80 years and, unfortunately, they’re not necessarily to blame for that but it’s their challenge, and we need to help them to deal with it. I personally believe the authorities should be more open. They must be able to, and want to, explain what they’ve done. And in my view, it’s one of their key objectives.

Q: How do you get in touch with the President when you need to?

A: Actually, there are many ways of contacting the President: there’s the President’s office, there’s a security officer who’s with the President 24 hours a day. If something urgent happens and we need to refer to the President, we contact his aide-de-camp and ask him to pass on information, and afterwards if the President wants to contact us or ask for additional material, then he contacts us directly.

According to the policies of security services all over the world, the President cannot have a mobile phone. And as you know, Barrack Obama had to hold long talks to keep his email box.

Q: The presidential administration announced it will cut its staff. Amidst the financial crisis it might be seen as a sign of a worsening economic situation?

A: You know, it’s clear what was behind this move. It was the President’s decision, and the Head of the Administration was commissioned to think over possible steps to cut expenses for the running of the President’s Administration. I’ll be honest, there are established posts, not all of them are occupied and, first of all, they’ll be cut down, Besides, there are situations, where retired people continue to work for one reason or another, there are other situations as well. But there’s no panic and fear, as nobody will cut positions which will prejudice the President’s work. If a person does his job well, if he has a clear-cut set of duties and his work is in demand, it’s obvious that he’ll continue his work.

Moreover, such reductions won’t be essential. There are about 1500 people who work in the Central Office In Moscow

Q: It’s a year since Dmitry Medvedev was elected president on March 2, 2008. What was it like?

A: You know, we don’t work separately from the President, therefore the year was very complicated for us. First of all, there were the August events, with the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia, which required extraordinary moves from Russia when it had to protect its compatriots and Russian peacekeepers by military action.

Certainly, it was a major event which very much determined our work. And naturally, as not many of us expected, there’s the world economic crisis and this issue has become the most important for us over the last six months from the point of view of explaining the actions of the President and the authorities.

Q: What was the toughest challenge you’ve faced in the last 12 months?

A: Probably, it was the war so far, I hope the crisis won’t be as serious as many analysts predict. It’s always hard with war, as then we deal with people, their lives. Of course, the situation was very serious.

Q: Do you think the past year was a success or a failure?

A: I would rather not judge where we succeeded and where we failed but, on the other hand, the moment which required the most of our professional skills was during the military conflict when all those efforts, not only by the Kremlin’s press service but by all those who were involved in officially commenting on this conflict, in covering this conflict, including your TV channel, I believe we did a really very big job, which allowed us to bring Russia’s view to western media, who, unfortunately, and it was a really difficult situation for me, didn’t demonstrate their usual impartiality.

Yes, that’s true. For me it was rather unpleasant. I’d like to repeat, the western media’s image that they are independent and unbiased was at the front of my mind, so it’s personally disappointing.