New Foreign Ministry spokesperson brings whiff of change

Maria Zakharova: "Journalists have no right to use stereotypes."

Maria Zakharova: "Journalists have no right to use stereotypes."

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Maria Zakharova, the first woman appointed to head the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Press and Information Department, has brought a whiff of change and freshness to her post, ushering in a less formal atmosphere. She has urged media people to look at her posts on social media as expert opinion rather than as ministry statements.

Maria Zakharova is the first woman ever to be appointed as official spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Appointed earlier this month, Zakharova replaced Alexander Lukashevich, who has been appointed Russia’s permanent envoy to the OSCE.

Before being appointed spokesperson and head of the ministry’s Press and Information Department, Zakharova worked as its deputy head and as a personal PR manager for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. She accompanied him on foreign trips and regularly posted pictures of the minister taken on a mobile phone in informal settings. As a result, one of the stiffest and most formal ministries, from the protocol point of view, has acquired a human, more informal touch.

Her particular achievement has been the ministry’s foray into social networks, from in February 2013 onwards. Zakharova likes to recall an incident when the Russian Foreign Ministry website was down after being hacked, and the Ministry’s window to the outside world was its Facebook account.

The new spokesperson has promised that, after her promotion, active engagement on social media will continue.

“The language and communication style there are quite different, so addressing social network users with the Foreign Ministry’s proverbial concern and expressing emotions that diplomats express in quite restrained language … we simply realized that the audience expect something different from us. I think this genre will survive too because it is in demand and it has been received very well,” Zakharova said in an interview with the TASS news agency.

Writing on her personal Facebook account on last week (Aug. 22), Zakharova urged journalists to look at her own social media posts as expert opinion and not as official statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Diplomatic revolution

Over the past year, Zakharova has been a frequent guest on TV and radio, primarily because of the Ukraine crisis and tensions in Russia’s relations with the West.

“Because of the crisis in Ukraine, foreign policy has entered every household. That crisis has cut right through our lives. No other crisis has been so painful for our people. Russia and Ukraine are a single body. Half of my family have Ukrainian surnames and I spent my childhood listening to my grandfather singing Ukrainian songs,” she said in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

In a comment for RIR, journalist Yury Paniyev, who heads the foreign politics desk at the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, said: “Maria is incredibly hard-working and respects journalists. I remember when she was heading the press service of the Russian mission to the UN in New York, it seemed the notion of sleep was quite alien to her.

“During the so-called ministerial week, when heads of state, prime ministers and foreign ministers from all over the world come to visit the UN headquarters, Maria would work nearly 24 hours a day assisting the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, but also willingly responded to requests and queries from journalists covering the work of the General Assembly.”

Political analyst Dmitry Babich, a regular contributor to the International Life magazine, a specialist publication for Russian diplomats, points out that “Zakharova’s appointment is symbolic.”

According to Babich, Russia has been “constantly under attack” for the last year or so and it is necessary to respond “robustly” to these attacks, at the same time making sure that the Russian position is made clear.

“Zakharova is a symbol of a new tactic of the Russian Foreign Ministry, of its new style. In order to put the essence of Russian foreign policy across to the general public, a new, striking and exciting personality was needed,” he told RIR.

Social network interview

The fact that Zakharova’s appointment signifies more changes to come is obvious from the way she gave her interview to RIR. Many Russian journalists remember too well how a mere five years ago, in order to receive an official comment from the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was necessary to file an official application and then wait, sometimes for a couple of days.

These days arranging an interview is not an easy thing either, but for the sole reason that Zakharova is so busy. In the end, she gave a brief interview for RIR via Facebook messenger.

RIR: What scares you the most in your new job?

Maria Zakharova: Lack of time.

RIR: How do you feel about some media presenting you as ‘the new face’ of Russian foreign policy in addition to Sergey Viktorovich [Lavrov], a less formal but at the same time a more gutsy one?

M.Z.: Coming up with pithy and striking comparisons and metaphors, especially when speaking about ‘newcomers’, is part of the media’s job description. So I am quite understanding. The main thing is not to allow metaphors to replace the essence of journalism, i.e. objectivity.

RIR: Which stereotypes about Russia do you think should be broken?

M.Z.: In my view, journalists, in principle, have no right to use stereotypes. Otherwise, they are not journalists but propagandists.

RIR: Will you continue going to the gym? Do you have a favorite sport?

M.Z.: Yes, I will. I like roller-skating, cycling, swimming and shooting. 

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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