"Did you have to pay a backhander to get the business?" The challenge of working in Russia

It is always interesting to gauge PR people's responses when I tell them that 60 per cent, or around £1.2m, of JTA's business comes from Russia and Russian speaking countries.

Jon Tibbs, chairman and founder of JTA, runs with the Olympic torch through the streets of Sochi
Jon Tibbs, chairman and founder of JTA, runs with the Olympic torch through the streets of Sochi
The reactions range from sympathy to incredulity; from disgust through to reverential awe.

All of these reactions are understandable. The most typical responses we get are: "Did you have to pay a backhander to get the business?" or "I bet they never pay their bills."

We’re also asked: "How do you justify working in Russia, given its position on – you name it – Ukraine / Georgia / human rights / media freedom etc?"

The fact is that, for a small British-based PR firm, doing business in Russia is not an obvious fit.

But the way we developed this niche market is, in itself, a lesson on how to do business in Russia.

Following Moscow’s disastrous bid to win the 2012 Games, and the likely disaster that would beset Sochi’s bid for the 2014 Winter Games, in October 2005 President Putin decided to shake things up and appoint a new Sochi 2014 bid leadership team, headed by the Western-facing Dmitry Chernyshenko.

He entered the bid race late and asked his contacts in the sports industry for new expert advisers – and our name was put forward.

We retained a subsequent contract with Sochi 2014 for the next eight years and secured referral work throughout the Russian Olympic family.

Rarely did we have to tender for new business – the strength of our existing relationships was often enough to seal the deal.

That is not to say that Russia lacks contractual procedures.

One of the great challenges facing any British company doing business in Russia is that it retains Soviet-style levels of bureaucracy.

But, of more than 200 invoices we have issued to Russian clients in nearly 10 years, 95 per cent of these have been paid within two months.

That is not just good fortune.

It helps that we work in PR; none of our clients would want to have an international reputation of being non-payers or receiving backhanders.

But I would like to think that it has more to do with the strength of our relationships.

More than any other country I have worked in, once you have made a friend in Russia, they are a friend for life.

I accept that the tricky part is to get a foot in the door in order to start the friendship process.

Most recently, we have faced different challenges over Russia’s involvement in East Ukraine.

Every day, I nervously check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office list of Russian sectors and individuals with whom British companies are forbidden to conduct trade.

To date, PR for the sports sector is safe.

And it appears that the Russians continue to appreciate our expertise and support and, indeed, the British Government is eager to further develop the sports export sector in Russia. 

It is good to see that commercial pragmatism can balance out foreign policy. 

So the advice I would give to British PR firms seeking to do business in Russia would be that someone in Russia will need your expertise; and once you win their trust, you can then win their friendship, and from there the business opportunities will flow. 

Jon Tibbs is chairman of JTA (Jon Tibbs Associates)

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