Analysis

Spotlight on: communicating around the Russia/ Ukraine crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated the news and business agenda, with companies and boardrooms having to pivot at pace to discuss the direct and indirect impact on employees, trading, supply chains and reputations. We’ve reflected on some of the themes we’ve seen over the last few weeks to help inform thinking around the challenges that the conflict has posed for companies, including:

  • How companies have spoken about the war and disclosed exposure to the region in announcements;
  • Questions every company should ask before addressing the conflict;
  • The top questions from the media everyone should be prepared to answer;
  • Some of the most interesting media coverage of the conflict and its wider impact.

Putting things into context

Pete Lambie

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, over half of the stories in the business pages have been about the impact on companies, international trade and the global economy.

Similar to what we saw two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020, this is the biggest refocusing of resources on the news desks and reallocation of space in the papers since “lockdown” entered the lexicon. This, combined with the focus from the media on the cost of living crisis, has squeezed the coverage of corporate reporting during results season to a minimum. Last Monday, every single story in the Daily Mail City & Finance section was linked to Russia and Ukraine.

How companies are talking about Ukraine/Russia in RNS announcements

Pauline Guenot, Harry Clarke and Pete Lambie

Financial results

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began towards the end of February, when most companies were preparing to announce results. This meant that the conflict coincided with a point in time at which the majority of PLCs are obliged to be making announcements, posing both a reputational challenge and a significant post balance sheet event for companies with December year ends.

Companies want to know, “Do we need to mention Ukraine within our results statement?” and if so, “How do we do it?”.

To inform these decisions, we sampled 107 results statements that have been issued since the invasion began, finding a clear split in approaches – 55 (51% of announcements) referenced the conflict. Of these, only 20 companies had direct exposure to the region.

Where companies chose to refer to Russia/Ukraine in results statements:

  • 20 did so within the body or notes to financial statements (including Going Concern statements);
  • 18 did so in the outlook statement;
  • 15 referenced it in the front page or CEO quote.

RNS’ clarifying exposure

Several companies have issued standalone announcements to the LSE to clarify their position and/or exposure to the conflict.

The majority of these announcements have used notably emotive language to condemn the invasion:

  • Watches of Switzerland was “shocked and deeply concerned’ by the ‘unimaginable tragedy in Ukraine”;
  • Companies called for a return to peace, notably Marsh McLennan “we join all those calling for a swift and peaceful resolution to this deadly conflict” and Coca Cola HBC, “we add our voice to the many who desperately want peace to return to Ukraine”;
  • Asos was one of the few companies referring to the conflict as a “war”;
  • Plexus included the Russian population in their statement: “our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people, as well as with ordinary Russians who are suffering consequences”.

For those continuing to operate in Russia and Ukraine, the level of condemnation of the Russian invasion varies. Petropavlovsk and Anglo Asian Mining only focus on identifying the risks and financial impacts, with Petropavlovsk referring to the conflict with neutral terms such as ‘events in Ukraine’ and investment trusts holding securities in Russian companies shared their thoughts with the ‘victims of the humanitarian crisis’.

For those making standalone announcements about operations in Russia and Ukraine, we identified four of their priorities:

  • Clarifying continuity of operations and financial exposure, which continues to be a theme, with Inchcape announcing the exit of its Russian business this morning (15 March). There have also been a number of RNS’ even when financial exposure is immaterial, as with Watches of Switzerland (worth nothing that JD Sports issued an RNS Reach to clarify the immateriality, rather than a full regulatory announcement);
  • Protecting their employees, with Imperial Brands continuing to pay Russian employees and prioritising the safety and wellbeing of their 600 employees in Ukraine, and Wizz Air setting an employee and family support scheme;
  • Expressing support for those affected, with JD Sports ‘expressing the utmost sympathy for all Ukrainians’, Wizz Air offering new jobs with relocation support for Ukrainians who wish to join them and Avast helping in the fight against disinformation by maintaining and bolstering its product offering;
  • Offering support for humanitarian efforts, with SourceBio International offering medical supplies, while Coca Cola HBC and WPP respectively supporting the Red Cross and UNHCR.

Five questions we’re asking clients before they talk about the conflict

Antonia Green, Crisis and Risk Specialist

As with any conflict, some are choosing to pause their communications activity while others are pivoting to talk about how they are responding to the situation. Communications strategies will entirely depend on the nature of your business, but there are some key questions we urge clients to consider before taking a stance on an issue (or deciding not to):

  1. What is your connection to the issue? Don’t just consider whether you sell in the region, but do you have teams based there? Do you have investments in the area? Before you come out with a position, you have to know where you stand as a business. Look at your full organisational structure, ownership and product or service offering.
  2. Are you making a business commitment to reflect the stance you are communicating? Empty words of sympathy without a clear action to help improve the situation are not enough.
  3. How is your team impacted? If you have a presence in the region, how are you keeping teams safe and supporting them?
  4. Is your voice needed? Or should you be leaving space for more authoritative or representative voices?
  5. Will your employees feel that your words are authentic and representative of the business? If you publicly commit to a stance or a value that your staff feel your organisation doesn’t embody, they may speak out. You need to do the work internally.

Top questions that every company should be prepared to answer

Alan Tovey

Two weeks into the crisis, companies can still expect to be questioned by the media about their dealings with Russia and how the Ukraine conflict is impacting them. If I were a reporter put in front of a company and given free rein to ask questions, here are the major themes I would look to cover. As for media calls after results and trading updates, expect the normal “how is business/ sales/ profits” questions to go out of the window rapidly as Ukraine remains the top story and journalists have been tasked by news desks to find business angles on it.

1. What is your exposure to the conflict in Ukraine? How is it impacting your business?

  • Conversely, savvy reporters will be looking for those benefiting from the conflict, such as defence companies or businesses picking up sales as buyers seek alternate suppliers if previous ones are no longer accessible.

2. What operations do you have in Russia/Ukraine?

  • Bases or staff there, subsidiary companies.

3. What are you doing to protect or safeguard staff in the region?

4. How much/what percentage of your revenues are to Russia/Ukraine?

5. Are you dependent on Russia for supplies/ components or business critical operations? Will you be making long-term changes to your supply chains as a consequence?

6. Are you pulling out of Russia, or closing/ pausing operations there?

  • If not, expect very difficult follow-up questions asking how this is justified.

7. Will you continue to do business with Russia or Russian companies?

  • Reporters are likely to ask about the stance both in the short and long-term.

8. Do you have any dealings with those subject to individual sanctions? How will this affect your company?

9. How are sanctions affecting your business operations? Are there any knock-on impacts from direct sanctions on Russia?

10. What pressures have you come under from UK/ Western governments/ investors/ customers/ the public/ media to halt dealings with Russia? What form did this take?

We have already gone through several phases of the news cycle, which began with companies’ exposure to and operations in the region, and moved on through the impact of sanctions and the role of advisers and Board members to UK listed Russian corporates.

What we’re beginning to see now is a rollout of the business desk’s pandemic playbook – with the story moving on to “which companies are going to benefit?” (the new breed of “Covid winners” stories), with a focus on defence companies, and “what are companies doing to help?” (as we saw with support for key workers and schools during the pandemic) – this was last weekend’s Sunday Times splash, with a consortium of UK companies lobbying to fast-track employment for Ukrainian refugees.

Articles you should read on Russia/Ukraine

  • The Economist

This is a thoughtful leader column in The Economist reflecting on Putin’s repression at home and ‘re-Stalinisation’ of Russia. Read more.

  • Financial Times

This piece provides an eminently sensible assessment of how tick box approaches to ESG ignore the nuances of an increasingly volatile world. Read more.

  • The Times

A Russian armoured convey being caught by a co-ordinated Ukraine strike was a brilliant use of shocking images to highlight the reality of modern warfare. Read more.

  • The Times

The Times highlights a recurrent PR strategy for CEO’s: the ‘self-sanctioning’ over MeToo, Black Lives Matter and currently the new Cold War. Read more.