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Rock Creek Creative

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Rock Creek Creative (also known as Rock Creek Publishing Group) is a marketing and communications firm in the Washington DC area, established in 1987.

On its website, the firm says it produces "identity, web, print, and display design to help our customers thrive in an increasingly competitive marketplace." Rock Creek Creative "can shape and focus the entire spectrum of perceptions your organization elicits," the website claims. "Nothing is more important than this identity. It is who you are!" [1]

Marketing the Orange Revolution

The Website

In a press release on February 8, 2005, Rock Creek Creative announced that it had "helped develop the communications strategy, branding and de facto policy Web site of the Orange Revolution (http://www.ukraineineurope.com )." Calling the site a "virtual freedom plaza for the democracy movement," Rock Creek said their "Ukraine in Europe" site was "the primary public forum that enabled political dialogue in the chaotic 12 months prior to the election." Rock Creek claimed, "Prior to the Web site's launch in December 2003, most Ukrainians were unaware of the strength of their numbers or of the degree of Western support for their cause." [2]

The site had been created to promote the "Ukraine in Europe and the World" conference, and had remained an active online resource after the event. For a period following the sucessful Orange Revolution, the site briefly featured the words "Orange Revolution" prominently on its homepgage. At this point, the end client had taken over the site maintenance and updates; it was no longer a current Rock Creek project. However, Rock Creek took advantage of the site's alignment with the revolution in order to create a press opportunity for the Company.

Discussing the difficulties of the project, Rock Creek principal Scott Johnson said, "We had to create a Web site that would not only be secure from attack, but that would also not be seen as a vehicle for any U.S.-driven political message, which it was not. It was important that visitors, no matter how sophisticated, not discern any U.S. involvement just because the communication strategy came from Rock Creek Creative." [3]

The "Ukraine in Europe" website lists as international "Friends of Ukraine" the German Marshall Fund and Global Fairness Initiative in the U.S., the French Institute for International Relations in France, the Adenauer Foundation in Germany, and the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and Parliamentary Committee on European Integration in Ukraine, among others. [4]

Johnson later told the Washington Post "he hoped the release would lead to 'a nice local technology story' about the Bethesda company in one of the local newspapers." [5]

The Conference

Rock Creek took credit for "promoting the 'Ukraine in Europe and the World' conference held in Kiev in February 2004," a meeting it said "focused Western media attention on the impending elections and provided a forum for international dignitaries to publicly debate what was at stake with Ukraine's relations to the West." Attendees included Viktor Yushchenko, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. [6]

Later, the firm said that they were hired by the Global Fairness Institute and paid $15,000 "to develop a Web site and strategy for a February 2004 conference in Kiev called 'Ukraine in Europe and the World.'" [7]This is a fee that is not unusual for high-end graphic design for websites or for marketing and public relations consulting.

Messaging

Johnson said his firm also "crafted messages that were credible and resonated with all our different audiences - the Ukrainian leaders, the Ukrainian people, other European nations and the international press." [8]

Russian Response

The initial response to Rock Creek publicizing its role in Ukraine's Orange Revolution came from Russia. On February 10, 2005, the Russian news service Novosti reported: [9]

The involvement of "a team of highly-skilled professionals" in the Ukrainian election remained unconfirmed until yesterday, when a prominent American PR-company Rock Creek Creative, known for providing the US government and CIA with information support in the past, announced it had helped develop a Web portal for Viktor Yushchenko's supporters.
This revelation confirmed the suspicions of Russian officials about the foreign origin of the "orange revolution." However, analysts believe foreign PR-companies only played a supporting role in the events in Ukraine. They would not have succeeded on their own if it had not been for the Ukrainian people, believes expert from the Moscow Carnegie Center Andrei Ryabov.
...A PR-company cannot start a revolution and the American influence on events in Ukraine is largely exaggerated. After Boris Yeltsin's presidential victory in the 1996 election, many people also claimed the Americans had masterminded it, although their contribution was close to zero, insists Igor Bunin, the director general of the Center for Political Technologies.
The expert believes Ukrainian political strategists played the main role in providing the PR for Mr. Yuschenko. That some of them became members of Ukraine's new cabinet supports his conclusions. For example, Nikolai Tomenko, the director of the Institute for Politics became a deputy prime minister, and Anatoly Gritsenko, the president of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, was appointed defense minister.

The Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote, also on February 10, that "nothing is known of [the Rock Creek] site in Ukraine." Rock Creek "had nothing to do with the revolutionary events," the paper concluded. Even Yushchenko's press secretary, Irina Gerashchenko, played down Rock Creek's role, saying Yushcenko has only one web site, and that "It's trendy to talk about your part in the so-called Orange Revolution, especially on Viktor Yushchenko's side. And a lot of people want to make money from it." [10]

BBC Monitoring (Feb. 9, 2005) reported that it "has not observed any references to the [Rock Creek] site in the Ukrainian media, including other web sites or chat rooms, during or after the Ukrainian election campaign and the subsequent protests."

Gerashchenko's "surprise was understandable," added Ukrainska Pravda, "considering that she was involved in the creation both of Yuschenko’s personal site and that of Our Ukraine." [11]

Serhiy Yevtushenko, acting director of Kyiv’s Institute for Euro-Atlantic integration, blasted the Rock Creek press release as "an unabashed advertisement for the firm," calling it "an improper and unethical approach to business by RCC towards its partners." [12]

Pravda also reported, "Late in the evening Kyiv time on February 9, RCC distributed an edited press release which barely resembled the prior one, released on February 8." The second release was titled “Rock Creek Creative Clarifies Press Release of February 8, 2005.” According to Pravda, a statement on the firm's website stated, "Reports that we claim to have played a large[r] role in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution are false." The follow-up statements said Rock Creek's role was limited to the conference. "We helped develop a communications strategy that recommended the non-partisan tone of the conference," the firm stated. "Rock Creek also created the brand and slogan as well as the detailed analysis required to make sure the site met the needs of Ukrainians, the Ukrainian press, and the international community." [13]

Other Responses

A March 7, 2005 Washington Post story painted the incident as an innocent bit of self-promotion gone awry. In the article, Global Fairness Initiative director Steven Bennett is quoted as saying, "It was the most successful press release ever released, as measured by the amount of interest - perverse interest." He added, "What that press release did was fan a lot of flames especially in eastern Ukraine and in Russia where people believe the U.S. was involved in the election. ... From our perspective, this has been a catastrophe."

The Post article ends with a contrite Johnson: "He does not plan on issuing more news releases. 'We don't need to market ourselves,' he said. 'We have plenty of work.'" [14]

Since the flurry of publicity that was largely negative in tone, Rock Creek has removed the Ukraine in Europe website from its portfolio on its website, and the Ukraine in Europe site appears also to have been pulled. A Google search for http://www.ukraineinsurope.com generates a large number of hits for Russian press coverage of the Rock Creek press release and resulting fallout, but no information about the site itself or the conference with which it was associated.

Interestingly enough, Rock Creek was portrayed in press coverage such as Annys Shin's article, "Local PR Firm Caught in Worldwide Web of Bad Press" as a PR firm. However, Rock Creek's primary business was graphic design and marketing consulting. At the time, Rock Creek's marketing materials featured the tag-line "Design Branding Strategy." Though now marketing themselves as more of a communications company with the new DBA, Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, PR projects do not appear explicitly in Rock Creek's online portoflio (http://www.rockcreeksm.com), nor is PR an explicitly mentioned service on their website . At the time of the press release Most public relations accounts were handled by consultant Michael Tinati. In fact, Rock Creek has been known to receive referals for design from DC-based PR companies Reingold and Levick Strategic Communications. An external PR company such as Levick or Reingold may have assisted in crafting the now infamous press release. However, unlike Rock Creek, they were wise enough not to take credit for the publicity.

Clients

From the firm's online portfolio, which is split into "identity," "web," "product," "print," "advertising," and "display" sections, the following have been or are clients: [15]

Staff

From the firm's website, the staff at the time of the press release were: [17]

Firm "partners" are:

Rock Creek has, however, been known not to update their staff and partner listings often. Some who are no longer employed with Rock Creek or who have moved to "Partner" status are listed as staff for months or even years after the change.

Contact

Rock Creek Creative
2 Wisconsin Circle
Suite 1010
Chevy Chase, MD 20817

Phone: 301-657-0800
Fax: 301-657-9555
Website: http://www.rockcreeksm.com/

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