Keeping up appearances for Russia’s oligarchs
The PR firm and its doyen, Juliana Slaschova, who polish the tarnished image of Russia’s super-rich oligarchs and industrial tycoons.
Bank chairmen and politicians apart, few people are more maligned or mistrusted than the niche group of humans known as the oligarchs, the über-wealthy private members club that has run Russia for the past 20 years. They seem to crop up everywhere these days: buying football clubs, hobnobbing with MPs on luxury yachts, and helping Vladimir Putin turn our gas on and off.
Gaining access to this mysterious species is a tricky business. Many oligarchs simply don’t want to talk to the press – and when they do, they expect fawning and flattery. Others see public attention and admiration as something they can simply buy, as they would a Picasso or an energy-rich Siberian province.
The clever ones turn to Juliana Slaschova, doyenne of Russia’s semi-formed public relations industry. As the president of Mikhailov & Partners, the country’s leading PR firm since 2007, she has spent 15 years compiling a formidable contacts book containing Russia’s most powerful and prominent media barons, oligarchs, socialites and politicians. Her clientele includes the industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov, believed to be the country’s richest man, and the billionaire Alexander Nesis, whose family bestrides the financial and precious metals scene.
Young and determined, her steeliness deliberately hidden behind a fashionable exterior, Slaschova decides who talks to Russia’s best, brightest and richest – and who is left out in the cold. “I would rather say that I’m the gateway than the gatekeeper,” she says.
There is no typical day for Slaschova. It starts at home with her husband and five-year-old daughter, and ends when the meetings are over. It might begin with a visit to the gym and the beauty salon, or a meeting with a Russian mining firm brokering a foreign acquisition. A recent morning involved five consecutive meetings with clients in completely different industries, requiring Slaschova to lean heavily on her team of 150 analysts and strategic thinkers strung out across Russia and the Ukraine.
Much of her time is spent traversing a country crossing 11 time zones. A recent trip found her organising the 35th anniversary of a section of the Trans-Siberian railway. Slaschova loaded up a jumbo jet with the country’s leading pop stars and flew them seven hours east of Moscow before transferring them on to a special train for a four-hour journey to a celebratory concert held in a place she describes as “absolutely the middle of nowhere”.
She describes her work as public strategy rather than straight PR. She only works with Russian clients who will sit down, listen, and do as they are told. Her own image is very much part of the process. In Britain or the US, she notes, female PRs, particularly in the corporate sector, tend to march around with clipboards barking orders. She took that approach for years, but went to see a consultant when work tailed off.
“She told me to give up severe suits and use my advantages as a woman,” she says. “And I tell you, I’ve become much more successful since I changed my look. And I feel much more freedom in a dress than a suit.”
Looking the part is one thing. Understanding a young and precocious country with an inbuilt inferiority complex, wrapped in a massive ego, is quite another. As an area of land, Russia is of course vast and ancient. Yet the Russian Federation itself, founded in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union, is a still young and restless state.
Russia’s oligarchs try to control everything around them, including their public image. Some clients, says Slaschova, “will ask us to get total control over all media outlets – basically asking us to write everything that gets published. We explain that we can’t control the media or the content of their publications, but can build up their reputation in normal, effective, constructive ways.” Mikhailov & Partners also refuses to pay journalists not to print articles, which is still a common occurrence.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, in a country where impatience is a virtue, is client expectation. New customers approaching Slaschova expect immediate results. Few Russian oligarchs recognise their true global image: as a bunch of chancers who bought and bullied their way to power and prestige in the 1990s, when the country was at its weakest. Yet Russian companies still approach PR firms confused by their poor reputation and expect them to wave a magic wand.
“Russian clients don’t think five years ahead, or even three years ahead,” says Slaschova. “Say a prospective client is pitching for an asset in America or India. They might come to us a month before the deal is set to be done, and tell us that they have the money, but that their public image is very bad in that country. We tell them that it won’t do any good us helping them, as one month is not enough to improve anyone’s image anywhere.”
Her favourite clients come for help when they face critical issues – when their personal fortunes or those of their listed companies are directly threatened. Then they are more willing to sit down and develop a strategy that will help them in the long term. In Russia, being super-rich often brings its own unwanted attention from gangsters seeking to extort wealth through bribery, blackmail or even kidnapping. Around one in every five clients represented by Mikhailov & Partners asks, essentially, to become invisible. “That’s very complicated, as many of these people are well-known and are often those most wanted for comment by the media,” Slaschova says. “In these cases we use third parties to comment on information relating to those clients, drawing attention away from them and towards other [creditable] sources.”
An example might be a major industrial or political figure with a substantial stake in a listed financial services group or energy firm. Slaschova’s team siphons all questions related to the firm towards the company’s chief executive – oligarchs rarely adopt a corporate position lower than chairman of the board – slowly deflecting the focus of any question away from the client.
This process can take up to a year, but it works and it doesn’t stop there. Slaschova continues pushing the CEO to engage more with the media, while directing press queries towards banking analysts with a positive view of the firm in question. Public events are vetted to eliminate the chance of the client being “doorstepped” by an aggressive or impertinent hack, and public speaking is only allowed at conferences at which the media presence is limited or non-existent.
But sometimes, of course, stories just leak out into the public. At that point firefighting takes over. A recent story – unfounded and untrue, Slaschova says – involved a key client (Prokhorov) who was tipped to buy the New Jersey Nets, the US basketball team. Once the story was reported in America, it grew arms and legs back home in Russia.
If that was a mini-crisis, then the story that engulfed another oligarch last summer was a full-on horror show. When Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire head of Russia’s largest aluminium firm, Rusal, moored his yacht off the Corfu coast and invited a few friends round for drinks, he could have no idea of the media storm he was brewing. One of the guests was Lord Mandelson, the then EU trade commissioner in charge of Europe‘s metal tariffs. Another was shadow chancellor George Osborne, who was later accused of seeking to solicit a loan for the Tory party.
What might Slaschova’s firm have done to mitigate the mother of all silly-season stories? While Deripaska is not a direct client of Mikhailov & Partners, some of his companies have dealings with the PR firm, and the story did little to dispel the notion, in Britain and elsewhere, that Russian oligarchs – and the Russian state in general – operate under their own set of rules, cajoling, bribing, threatening and bullying people wherever they go.
Some still do, to be sure. But a growing number of Russia’s super-wealthy do business with the rest of the world. Many of the leading oligarchs are as ambitious and entrepreneurial – and transparent – as anyone working in Asia, Europe or America. Slaschova, who has worked for the New York-based advertising firm BBDO and kicked off her career representing Russian clients in the United States, knows better than anyone how to sell modern Russia to the world.
“The biggest challenge has become getting my clients’ reputation and profile raised abroad,” says Slaschova, who reckons that at least 80% of foreign articles about Russian firms and business people are negative. “Our clients face so many stereotypes. We say to editors: ‘Our clients are transparent; they pay their taxes; they are good people.’
“But there is always scepticism. Look at the Deripaska case. Even if he was on the yacht talking to ministers, it doesn’t make sense to make such a scandal out of it, to make so much noise. Businessmen everywhere are close to politicians.”
Slaschova tells her clients to talk to editors and influential reporters, off the record but on a regular basis. Clients do between five and 10 interviews with the foreign press every few months, informing editors about their achievements or business activities.
“We have three clients with long-term positions and campaigns and they are all successful internationally,” she says. “It shows that if you invest your resources and plan this way, the results become visible. I guarantee my clients that within six-to-12 months they will receive better coverage from the foreign press.”
There is much still to do to dispel the nagging feeling that powerful Russians tend to be up to no good, whether hobnobbing on yachts or poisoning spies in sushi bars. The feeling won’t go away and neither will the bad press, at least not in the short term. But Juliana Slaschova & Co is trying to give Russia’s much-maligned oligarchs and politicians if not the press they believe they deserve, then at least a fairer crack of the whip.
The following correction was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday 30 August 2009
In our piece below on Russian public relations expert Juliana Slaschova, we stated that, although Oleg Deripaska had no direct dealings with Ms Slaschova’s company, some of his companies did. In fact, none of Mr Deripaska’s companies has a commercial relationship with Ms Slaschova’s agency.