The introduction of sanctions against prominent Russian individuals by the US Government will be more than just an irritation to them. Beyond the practical difficulties of asset freezes and travel bans, there is another very important dimension – enduring reputational damage because of perceived ‘guilt by association’.
The US Government has gone much further than the EU in targeting high profile successful businessmen who it sees as being close to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Each of the individuals will now find themselves subject to intense worldwide media interest and speculation.
The potential for ongoing negative news coverage is very high and political enemies will seize the opportunity to make further attacks. We are seeing this happen already.
Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Putin, is demanding that the EU follow the steps taken by the US Government and even go further. In an article published in the New York Times, entitled ‘How to Punish Putin’ he calls on the West to extend sanctions so as to hit individual ‘oligarchs’. He named a number of those he would like to see punished, including Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov – both very well known here in the UK.
Inevitably this kind of coverage will be damaging to reputations and unless fast action is taken to limit the effects of being on the sanctions list, the damage is likely to be deeper and longer lasting than need be. Individuals affected by this should be thinking in terms of how to use the media, rather than running away from it.
Proactive engagement with the media can significantly soften the coverage and help to position the individual in a much more positive light. The arbitrary nature of the sanctions and the way that they have been imposed should be part of developing a supportive overall narrative geared towards reputation management.
But the communications should go far beyond the media. The sanctions will cause business interruptions, including an inability to transact or get access to finance. It is important that a crisis communications plan is quickly devised and put in place, to reassure key stakeholders who otherwise may mis-read the situation.
Adopting a comprehensive communications approach means that reputational damage can be minimised and mitigated through a strong narrative. Without plans in place which are carefully executed, the negative reputational effects will be enduring long after the sanctions are eventually lifted.