In Blog we trust

Arseniy Rastorguev (known to his UK friends as Archie) works in the Moscow office of MMD, a leading corporate communications firm for central and eastern Europe. Clients include IBM, Visa and HSBC.

MMD’s regional director in Moscow, Stephen Locke, is ‘a big fan of social media’. Archie started as a consultant with MMD’s technology team two years ago. He’s now working across corporate communications, charged with masterminding MMD’s embryonic social media arm.

I met Archie at Tuttle last week, but now we’re sitting in The Hospital, having a chat about the social media scenes in our respective cities.

Archie says local firms in Moscow tend to be very ‘top down’ and that he’s found a big difference between dealing with the straightforward pyramid hierarchies at home and the more matrix-ed multinationals: “In Russia, the CEO is very much ‘in charge’; with international companies it’s a very complex chain of command”.

Whatever their structure, all businesses show a similar caution when it comes to participative media:

“Companies perceive social media as too risky and too freakish. They see it as a nerd sitting there with a computer.”

In contrast with what most people might think in the UK, Archie cites Starbucks as one of the first companies to ‘get it’.

“Starbucks attempts to be a good company. It was one of the first companies (with to understand that there isn’t a difference between PR and how your company really operates. Everyone loves Starbucks in Russia because the local coffee shops have bad service, terrible coffee and terrible food. We hope that Starbucks will kick out the local coffee shop owners.”

When most companies decide they want to do something with social media, says Archie, it always has to be on their terms:

“I like what Olga Rasulova of Edelman says (at least, I think it was her idea), that building your own social network is the equivalent of building a beautiful boutique in the middle of the desert. Many kilometres away, on the edge of the desert, there’ll be whole cities with streets and shops and ports and people. Your boutique may look amazing, but what’s the point? You need to go to where the people are.”

Archie knows all about where to find Russian consumers online. He’s been a paid-up member of the Russian blogosphere since he first got an invite code to Livejournal six years ago.

“My first degree was in political science. When I graduated, I got a job as an assistant to the director of the Higher School of Economics. At the same time, I was doing some writing for an educational journal. They were putting together a board of experts and invited me to join. This board based all their discussions on Livejournal.

“Livejournal is the core of the blogosphere in Russia. For four reasons, firstly, you can have a friends feature and can read all their blogs [similar to RSS]; second, you can have a closed community – post private posts to friends only; third, comments are threaded – this leads to an instensive and structured discussion, fourth, Livejournal is based around user communities. In Russia it’s the communities that are important rather than the individual bloggers themselves.

“The blogging community in Russia has grown up not around geeks but around the intelligentsia – academics and political commentators. Blogging gives people a way to express themselves outside the boundaries of traditional media. Since the press is not very opposition friendly, the blogosphere is the main outlet for opposing viewpoints.”

Blogging is so popular in Russia that Yandex – the leading Russian search engine – lists the top-ranking blogs on its home page every day – having your blog featured here, says Archie, is the equivalent to having your by-line on the front page of a national newspaper.

So, how about business? Why does he think blogging has great potential for business in Russia?

“Before Glasnost there was obviously a lot of propaganda but now the business press in Russia is pretty impartial. Journalists have mastered the art of the non-biased report. People are bored with the bland, balanced, two sides to every story approach.

“In the blogosphere, you don’t have to pretend to be impartial. People express their opinions – and then get corrected if they’re wrong. The press journalist won’t write a piece about a company putting out a crappy press release or a company’s PR representative constantly phoning him or her, but the blogger would. The blogger is much closer to the consumer.

“This is not really about ‘new’ media. It’s the normal human conversations we’ve always had but they’re now accessible.”

“With old style PR, as long as you were nice to the press, you’d be fine. Today, everyone is a media outlet. Companies are having to become more and more genuinely transparent. PR and corporate social responsibility are stretching from being a business function to being an integral part. And, more than anything else, the blogosphere is a stock-market for trust.”