How do you defend your clients from raids in the former Soviet Union? This topic was at the top of the agenda on Day 2 of the 9th annual conference “International Disputes and Asset Recovery Involving Former Soviet Union Parties” on 29 January 2020.

The session, organised by a leading business events provider C5, brought together experts from three related spheres: criminal law, asset tracing and PR. As a legal PR manager and Head of Russia/CIS Desk at Byfield Consultancy, a leading specialist agency working exclusively on legal matters, I joined Andrew Smith, Partner specialising in extradition at criminal law firm Corker Binning, and Andrew Wordsworth, co-founder and Partner at investigation and asset tracing firm Raedas.

Communications were a major part of the mix as the topic involved discussions around reputations of high-profile people, mainly wealthy entrepreneurs and top managers. These are people who find themselves involved in forced migration and extradition due to political and economic reasons. As such, here are the crucial points lawyers need to consider when handling the communications around defending a client following a raid.

Those who are most exposed to reputational risks

High profile immigrants and refugees from the former Soviet Union countries who are most exposed to the reputational risks fall into two major categories.

Firstly, there are those whose reputation is part of their business capital. One of the best examples would be Mr Chichvarkin, whose business, including marketing and recruitment strategies, very much revolved around his persona and his style. Another group of clients subject to a greater reputational risk are those who were in the public eye back at home. Such people could safely assume they had raised chances to fall under the watchful eye of the media in their new country of residency.

There are other types, of course, but these two are believed the most exposed and are thus under more pressure to act quickly and thoughtfully in support of their reputation.

The media: powerful ally, devastating foe

When trying to defend their reputation, political and economic immigrants from the former Soviet Union are likely to face scrutiny by the media, and the latter could undoubtedly be a most powerful ally, but also a devastating foe if you get the wrong end of the stick.

Getting media relations right will be crucial. This means that your in-house or external PR team should know the media exceptionally well.

There will be cases where lawyers wouldn’t want their clients or themselves talking to the media. These are the times when a PR team could help by acting as a buffer between the media and the client. Such communication will be essential, especially if it is likely to benefit the case by supporting the legal strategy.

Choosing the best person to speak with the media is another tricky point, since the speaker should be “media savvy”. This term describes somebody who knows what the media expect, uses appropriate language and simple sentences, appreciates that ‘no comment’ is not an option and has ideally gone through a media training.

As a lawyer, one might wonder why this is important for the legal team, and the answer is simple. Since the client will be under a lot of pressure and stress, the onus will be on their advisors to think long-term for them.

And long-term, lawyers might need PR to support the legal strategy.

Fighting the law in the media

There will be situations where a communications strategy would centre around fighting the law in the media. In case of Interpol, this battle could entail explaining to the public that the international agency’s Red Notice could be a pressure tool the governments use against their targets; and as such, it is not necessarily a direct representation of your client’s reputation.

Explaining what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ will thus support your client’s case; it will also mitigate any misunderstanding the public might have.

Cases like these are crises; and as such, require a crisis communications plan. A fundamental part of any such plan is A) to anticipate and prepare responses to questions that may be raised by various stakeholders, and B) to be ready with a statement you can immediately send out depending on the likely scenarios that the case might face.

It is so obvious? 

It might sound obvious that communications are important in matters of preparing and defending clients from raids, but we often see cases where lawyers become far too focused on the legal side of things, perhaps losing sight of the bigger picture. Reputation management and communications could be an integral part of this bigger picture.