11 March 2021
More of our lives take place digitally than ever before. Information has become a commodity and social media allows us all to over share. The media are often openly hostile towards ultra high net worth individuals and their lifestyles.
The publication of false or private information in the media is not the only way that damage can be caused. Outside of media attention, there are multiple layers through which a person's information flows and is collected and used creating many more avenues of risk to one's privacy and reputation. In any person's private, family life, there are also numerous key life events which create pieces of private information that, if not managed properly, open up areas of one's private life for all the world to see.
Given this challenging environment, here are 5 points ultra high net worth individuals must keep in mind when thinking about their reputation and privacy.
Marriage, divorce, death of a family member, hiring or firing staff, court cases, investigations, children and travel - all these key events can open a person's private life to the public. To protect client's privacy and reputation, it's essential to prepare in advance before private details or false allegations enter the public domain. Afterwards, they are much harder to contain.
In the event of a relationship breakdown, there could be reputational or privacy implications for those involved, including children. This can be an issue from the start if one party wants revenge on the other. The media may try and publish the details of an affair. If the divorce goes to court, and a fight over money ensues, one side may try and brief the media to obtain leverage or private, confidential and intimate details may come out at court hearings or in a court judgment. In these scenarios, take advice well in advance on what may become accessible to the press and when, as well as what is private and protectable. Consider what information may be disclosed and whether to apply for reporting restrictions or anonymity in relation to financial issues or issues relating to children.
Consider the risk of the press intruding into the loss of a family member or associate and whether private information could be publicised as part of a public inquest into the cause of death, taking advice on how to stop it in advance where necessary. Request that the press deal with and report on such issues sensitively in accordance with their regulatory obligations and manage unwanted approaches by journalists for comment.
Beyond the eye of the media, ultra high net worth individuals and their families can often find themselves fighting to protect their reputation and privacy when false or private information is used against them or their business interests in other, equally damaging, ways. Burying your head in the sand will leave you exposed. To protect yourself, understand what's out there and how it's being used (for or against you or your business).
Once you know the answers, seek legal help in repairing the damage by challenging or removing false and damaging information or in setting the record straight by rebutting falsities in communications to stakeholders, banks or other third parties. To manage global transparency rules, a legal advisor can advise on what information needs to be reported between tax authorities and on which register(s) of beneficial ownership.
Whether you are buying or selling a property there are privacy risks to consider. During a property transaction, large amounts of private information are generated. Your details, including photos or film footage of the outside and inside (including bedrooms), location, price, belongings, access points and layout are entered into the public domain without a buyer or seller having any control during or after the transaction. This creates an opportunity for others to use this information and unwanted media coverage can follow if the property, or the parties, are of interest to the public. Personal safety issues can also arise. If you want to keep things private, put in place measures that will provide more control over personal and private information during a property transaction. Such measures may include putting in place NDAs with estate agents, creators of marketing materials and potential purchasers, and obtaining the copyright in all the marketing materials, including in the photos, video tours, floorplans and hard copy and online brochures.
Sadly, it's all too common for ultra high net worth individuals to suffer from harassment or blackmail, online or physical. When faced with these threats, both the criminal and civil law can protect you, but take expert advice on which is the best route. Remember that victims are able to fight back and can use the civil route to assert their rights and stop blackmail and harassment under the protection of anonymity. This allows victims to keep their own names out of the case, but still obtain the protection they need. Likewise, action can be taken urgently against anonymous perpetrators without knowing their names, and before they can be unmasked, with the ability to serve injunctions ordering them to stop their actions online or via text message. This can then be used to shut done the platforms they may be using to blackmail or harass you, such as a social media account, a mobile phone or a website, helping to neutralise the threat.
If a journalist approaches you with a story he or she wants to publish, time is of the essence because only a short deadline is often given for comment. Making key decisions without external advisors (usually PR and media law specialists) already in place can make matters worse. Many of the reputational challenges which people face will often involve delicate and complicated scenarios. When challenged by the media, the instinctive, natural reaction is often to fight back as aggressively as possible. But this approach can backfire, and the legal approach taken becomes "the story" or creates unmovable obstacles to solving the problem. Understanding the right approach is as important as understanding the law. Often a more subtle or collaborative approach will be most effective, especially when trying to also maintain a positive relationship with the media. An experienced legal team around you will be able to advise when its best to speak before shooting, and when it's not.