PR failures could end with youth party cleansing

One of the disputed photos (image from
Awkward public relations tactics of the pro-Kremlin organization “Young Guard” may result in the axing of its leadership, after they caused uproar among Russian bloggers.

The Young Guard is a youth branch of Russia’s parliamentary majority party “United Russia”.

The organization’s convention, scheduled for October, will see 13 of the 22 members of its ruling council dismissed. The official explanation is desire to make the council younger, since all the potential retirees are over 28. However, according to a source cited by Vedomosti newspaper, the real reason is bad performance during the wildfires Russia faced last month.

“Bogus” photos

The episode in question dates back to August 10, when Young Guard activists traveled to a forest to help firefighters. The move was apparently meant as a PR stunt from the very beginning, since the group was headed by the leader of the organization, Ruslan Gattarov, who is also a senator in the Russian parliament.

Afterwards, a number of photos featuring activists and a video statement of Gattarov himself calling on volunteers to take their share in dealing with the natural disaster were published on the Young Guard website.

The call did not have the intended effect. A storm of angry posts flooded Russian blogs, as commentators pointed to what they called “posed” photos. They claimed that Young Guard activists lied about their firefighting efforts, pointing out their clean hands, inappropriate clothing, lack of signs of fire in the photos and other evidence. Gattarov and Co, the bloggers said, were trying to score political points from the nationwide tragedy, but had hardly even pretended to actually help.

The Young Guard responded to these accusations by inviting everyone interested to their next trip to fire sites. They also said that critics were misinterpreting the photos and that many bloggers did not have the moral right to criticize in the first place, because they had not volunteered, unlike Young Guard activists.

The controversial photo was quickly removed from United Russia's website, but resulted in a scandal nevertheless.

At the same time, United Russia had PR failures of its own during the fires. A regional branch published a photo purportedly showing party activists dousing fires in forests. However bloggers were quick to find the date that the photo was taken in the file’s metadata, which was June 3, 2008. Further, they say heavy smoke shown in the picture has actually been modified by an image editor, which was also recorded in the file.

Flawed logic

The awkward actions of the organization angered the patrons in the United Russia, Vedomosti says. But the bogus photoset was not the worst thing. The Young Guard was expected to prepare a comprehensive report on its activities during the wildfires for the public, but failed to do so.

“I’m afraid, with the exception of those photos and disorganized efforts of a handful of activists in the regions, Ruslan and Co. have nothing to be proud of,” Aleksey Chadayev, head of the political department of the United Russia commented.

Meanwhile Gattarov claims that the media is using flawed logic, since the decision to make leadership of the Young Guard younger was taken long before the fires. “The decision…was taken in spring and has not been changed ever since,” he assured.

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio, Gattarov said that in April a decision to appoint him as a member of the Federation Council was approved.

“I believe that young people should manage youth organizations,” he said. “I am 33. I joined the Young Guard when I was 28. I think that a five-year path is quite enough.” He underlined that they should be efficient people with new ideas, tasks and projects. “Since April we have been preparing a congress that will take place in autumn and define who will become new leaders of the organization.”

Commenting on the scandal that bloggers stirred up, he accused them of changing the order of photos and “falsifications”, adding those people were in fact sitting at home in front of their computers. The Young Guard leader said that the movement activists arrived in Ryazan Region, where at that moment the situation with wildfires was the worst. The Emergencies Ministry representatives, however, did not allow them to be at the “hottest spots”, but instead handed over spades and buckets and sent them to put out separate flames in places which had already burnt.

As for Chadayev’s unflattering comment, he said that, “unfortunately Aleksey does not log on to our website,” where all the reports, including on dealing with fires, are presented.

“We had over 1,600 people helping fire victims. Those were activists who were gathering [humanitarian] aid, helped to deliver milk, patrolled forests to prevent new fires …I think no other youth organizations can boast such numbers: 31 regions and over 1,600 people…But it is my photos that are being examined: whether my gloves are dirty or my spade is clean,” he said. “They see what they want to see,” Gattarov concluded.