Russian ‘Black PR’ has been on the attack once again, and has shown how it can turn fake material into a weapon against large companies, with the goal of causing significant damage to the credibility and reputation of businesses and their owners. In the context of Russia’s chemicals industry, which is already subject to external economic sanctions from Europe in the U.S., the consequences of such internal initiatives can be all the more serious. The latest victim of this style of smear campaign is TogliattiAzot (ToAZ) and its Chairman of the Board of Directors Sergei Makhlai. Opponents of ToAZ – the world’s largest ammonia producer – have been using regional and federal media channels to wage an information war against the company, with many unfounded accusations made against the chemicals giant and its owners.
A number of fabricated stories were released to the media by the black PR team, and included claims that TogliattiAzot purchased a football club, a Swiss hotel and other similar fictitious stories. Billboards were also created with featured abusive messages, demonstrations were organized, and letters were sent in an attempt to discredit this company along with Sergei Makhlai. The use of black PR is becoming more and more prevalent, and according to the Center for Political Information (CPI), these campaigns pose one of the greatest threats to Russian businesses.
CPI believes that the smear campaign against TogliattiAzot, as is the case with many black PR cases, stems from disagreements with minority shareholders. In this case, CPI believes that another chemicals company, Uralchem, and its owner Dmitry Mazepin, are behind the attack against ToAZ. The Anonymous ‘hacktivist’ group flooded the web with correspondence to uncover this smear campaign. The hack information shows that Uralchem – one of the largest producers of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers in Russia and the CIS – wanted their PR team to smear Igor Sechin, President of Rosneft as well.
The hacked emails include directions for falsifying witness letters saying that Sechin misused company funds. Additionally, hacked emails show that the opponents of ToAZ spent a minimum of $2 million on the smear campaign which started in 2012. The same team responsible for this black PR also worked for Eurotoaz Limited – a company that works with Uralchecm. Eurotoaz filed a lawsuit that included shareholders at ToAZ and this lawsuit, if successful, would give Uralchem more shares in the company. While Uralchem says it has no connection to Eurotoaz, the hacked emails show that claim is patently false.
The state of affairs created by this black PR has even stopped Makhlai, the rightful owner of ToAZ from remaining in Russia. He has said that Mazepin has threated criminal prosecution against him and other top managers, while at the same time pressurising Makhlai to sell the business. These black PR campaigns have had a significant impact on reputable businesses like ToAZ, and must be urgently dealt with to stabilize the Russian chemicals industry.