The establishment's biggest ever reputational challenge? UK PRs respond to the Panama Papers

The Panama Papers, which feature leaks about the widespread use of a tax haven by high-profile individuals and corporations, represent a huge reputational challenge for many organisations, although PR professionals have mixed views on the wider implications.

Putin (l) and Messi are both implicated in tax leak (Credits: Alexei Nikolsky/AP/Press Association Images for Putin; Manu Fernandez/AP/Press Association Images for Messi)
Putin (l) and Messi are both implicated in tax leak (Credits: Alexei Nikolsky/AP/Press Association Images for Putin; Manu Fernandez/AP/Press Association Images for Messi)

In what has been billed as the largest cross-border journalism collaboration ever, 107 media organisations in 78 countries have been analysing leaked files from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in collaboration with the The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The secret files include 11.5 million records dating back 40 years, making it the "largest leak in offshore history", with holdings of 140 politicians and public officials around the world included.

The findings are likely to be further analysed and reported in more detail over the coming days and weeks, but among the allegations this morning are that:

  • Concert cellist Sergei Roldugin, an associate of Vladimir Putin, owns a number of offshore companies, with some publications linking his activities to the Russian President.
  • Six members of the UK House of Lords and three former Conservative MPs had offshore accounts, including Lord Ashcroft, Tory peer Baroness Pamela Sharples and former Tory MP Michael Mates.
  • Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson had an undeclared interest in an offshore company linked to his wife's wealth.
  • Football star Lionel Messi owns a firm, Mega Star Enterprises, along with his father, which was previously unknown to Spanish investigators that were looking into Messi’s tax affairs.

Several organisations implicated have already commented, including Mossack Fonseca, which has issued a lengthy response to The Guardian, one of the media outlets involved in the leaks.

Among other things, the response says: "For 40 years Mossack Fonseca has operated beyond reproach in our home country and in other jurisdictions where we have operations. Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing."

PRWeek asked comms professionals for their views on the Panama Papers and their implications.

Ben Burton, UK head of corporate, Weber Shandwick

"The sheer volume of the leak from the Panama Papers means this is likely to play out over several news cycles. Anyone potentially implicated has a small window to try to explain what they've done and why they've done it. The toxicity around tax at present means that technical legal and financial arguments won't cut through the noise so anyone under suspicion will need to be radically transparent in how they explain their presence in the files."

Ben Curson, UK managing director, CNC

"It is still relatively early days in terms of coverage and analysis given the sheer scale of the leaked documents, but despite the revelations included in the data, including reported links to 72 different current or former heads of state, I’m not sure that this will necessarily alter public opinion that greatly (in the UK at least). Clearly this particular story shines a bright spotlight on wider personal and corporate tax issues that have been widely covered for several years now. In the medium term, I think that this will probably serve to further entrench existing negative attitudes among the general public towards business and the political classes generally.

"I would suggest there are a lot of uncomfortable revelations still to come and questions still to be answered. Another element that is just starting to play out will be the political fallout, not just in the UK but globally. How will the UK Government respond and how will the UK tax authorities react given previous statements on ending tax secrecy? Where will the political pressure end?"

Victoria Cross, managing partner and risk and crisis team lead, Instinctif Partners

"This fascinating story will doubtless be met with equal measures of outrage, cynicism and apathy. If we were advising any of those implicated we would first urge them to establish the facts. Although the story has broken, given that no official investigation has yet taken place beyond the investigative journalism, any comments should be cautious at this stage. A holding position such as ‘we are aware of the allegations and are investigating…’ with appropriate reassurance about their own governance would be the limit of any appropriate comment.

"Whether implicated or not, what this story should remind all corporate entities is the need for comprehensive risk assessment and mitigation at all levels, with thorough preparation for the worst case scenarios. All too often it’s a sad case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

"How the story unfolds over time will depend on the outcome of any legal trials surrounding the case. The regulators in the jurisdictions responsible should certainly be prepared for increased scrutiny from all stakeholders."

Maria Darby-Walker, senior director, Citigate Dewe Rogerson (formerly of the Financial Conduct Authority)

"First and foremost you would need to check the facts; what is the allegation? Is there any substance to it? Once known has the client done anything illegal, something that does not sit well morally or are they in the clear? Then you can work around what you know.

"I suspect the public will not be overly surprised [by the reports]; it will just add to the lack of trust that many feel towards politicians and big business.

"The Mossack Fonseca response is pretty robust; what the incident highlights for me is the worry for many organisations of keeping confidential client data secure as we saw recently with TalkTalk."

Warren Johnson, chief executive, W

"The story will probably be bigger for the media than consumers. It looks really impressive, and no doubt is impressive from a journalistic point of view, but does it change anyone’s world view? Probably not. After all, the US Government last year estimated that Putin was worth $40bn, so revealing the trail behind $2bn (£1.4bn) feels like comparatively small beer.

"What is interesting is that the media have been emboldened to make these direct accusations on Putin. This was only made possible by trawling the huge amounts of data from the leak itself, which was shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with The Guardian and the BBC. It’s this level of collaboration, previously witnessed with the Snowden leak, this will define a new model of investigative journalism.

"It will be interesting to see Putin’s response – he’s brilliant at turning what would be a PR disaster for any other leader into a masterclass of media manipulation for his domestic audience, and it will also be fascinating to see how HM Revenue & Customs responds - that could ultimately be the real story. Tax avoidance has been a persistent Achilles’ heel for Cameron and Osborne, and they will almost definitely come under pressure to be seen to do something."

Malcolm Gooderham, head of corporate and political affairs, Montfort Communications

"The story will move quickly. All affected parties need to plan: what details to provide to whom, when and how. They must avoid the familiar behaviour of waiting to see 'how it plays out', or 'hoping it will blow over'. A plan does not have to mean leading the story, but it does mean having a proactive agenda for briefing media and key corporate relationships. Trying to micro-manage such events is a fool's game, but managing the flow of information gives the institution a degree of control.

"Some companies work on the basis that transparency is an eventuality to prepare for - others a principle to live by. Both can be wrong-footed when they follow professional advice, act within the law, but their behaviour challenges the spirit of the times. However, we know that hiding behind the letter of the law does not shield, but can actually expose, brands to a significant loss of political capital and reputation."

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