Rarely has the power of PR been so crucially demonstrated as in the past year, a time during which the priorities of Ukraine’s creative industries have drastically shifted.
Members of the PR Army, a Ukraine-based collective founded on the first day of the war in the country, tell PRWeek how they unexpectedly found themselves at the forefront of a movement to shape worldwide perspectives.
“One day your professional input can be immensely significant, as weapons in this war are different,” says Julia Petryk, co-founder of the Ukrainian PR Army.
Ukrainian creative agency Bickerstaff recalls attempts to prepare for Russia’s invasion but says that, ultimately, the scale of the impact was unprecedented.
An agency representative told PRWeek: “During the first days after February 24, we all experienced huge stress and shock. Clients froze their orders and cancelled future projects. The financial fund we kept for emergencies was distributed among team members because everyone had to decide what to do next.”
Ukrainians in creative industries had little choice but to use their skills to help their country, adapting where possible.
“Many of us have undergone forced retraining from, for example, PR specialists in IT to PR specialists in the fields of geopolitics, law or military affairs,” says Alice Korzh, Ukrainian PR Army co-ordinator, and head of brand and PR at CodeGym. “We’ve worked as volunteers for almost a year, 24/7, and each of us has gone far out of our comfort zone and capabilities.”
Bickerstaff is one business that turned its work towards helping its country, producing creative campaigns aimed at fighting disinformation and bypassing Russian media censorship.
One example included launching an ‘Easter GIF Attack’, by creating mock greetings GIFs that morphed into messages about current events in Ukraine, intending unsuspecting Russians to send them to friends and family.
In a similarly focused campaign for the State Agency for Tourism Development of Ukraine Bickerstaff hijacked the Airbnb brand to create a fake rental marketplace for Russian tourists to stumble upon when searching the internet for travel destinations.
Bickerstaff has also helped indvidual brands with their Ukraine operations, producing consumer campaigns that primarily benefit the country rather than the business.
“Brands need to enhance the right values in society and have a position during the war,” says the agency. “Ukrainian society today is more conscious than ever, which means any mistakes will be noticed and most of them are unlikely to be forgiven.”
Exiting Russia – PR’s responsibility?
Finding a suitable stance on the war is an issue that international businesses have also had to grapple with over the past year.
While consumer multinationals such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola halted Russian operations within weeks of the invasion, many others have flown under the radar, says PR veteran David Gallagher.
“One of the things people celebrated at the beginning was all these Western businesses saying that they weren’t going to support the Russian war effort, that they would get out of the market; but really, relatively few of them have,” he says.
A new study from the B4Ukraine coalition found 56 per cent of international firms that had ties to Russia at the start of 2022 are continuing to operate within the country.
Gallagher, co-chair of the PRCA and ICCO’s Ukraine Communications Support Network (UCSN), believes it is the PR industry’s responsibility to encourage clients to withdraw, even if it means having a difficult or awkward conversation.
“I feel like for us to be at our best as a discipline, we’ve got to have the courage to do what’s right,” he says. “If we can’t have this conversation, who else will do it?”
‘A lot to be grateful for’
Along with co-chair Nataliya Popovych, Gallagher has helped the UCSN to organise much of the international effort towards the war, including humanitarian support, business continuity work, sentiment analysis and projects to support Ukrainian creatives and artists.
Regarding the international PR industry’s response to the crisis in Ukraine, Gallagher says there is “a lot to celebrate, or at least be grateful for”.
Organisations including the CIPR and the Global Alliance, as well as agencies such as Lynn and individuals like Rod Cartwright and Lionel Zetter are among those deserving recognition, he adds.
In terms of making a tangible difference, Gallagher says: “I don’t know about our impact on the battlefield, but I do think we’ve been successful in helping governments understand the perspectives of Ukrainian people about the war.”
Briefing documents from the UCSN, providing historical and social context for the war, have been shared with leaders in South Africa, France and Poland, he says.
Despite this, Gallagher makes no secret of the fact that “much remains to be done” from a global comms perspective, a year into the conflict.
“Attention fatigue, earthquakes, economic anxieties – it’s not easy to keep people interested in a war that's starting to sound like old news,” he says.
Gallagher shows marked admiration for the persistence of Ukrainian nationals involved in the comms effort. Whether shifting their professional attention towards the war effort, or continuing their usual work from home or abroad, he says: “I’ve been seriously impressed with the resilience and the creativity of just staying in business.
“Obviously it’s not a good environment to operate within, but I’ve been really amazed by just how innovative the industry has been.”
‘Sometimes a crisis may be your window of opportunity’
According to a spokesperson from Bickerstaff, that perseverance hasn’t been easy to sustain, and burnout is becoming a widespread issue across Ukraine.
Despite these difficulties, the agency entered 2023 with a host of award wins (including a Cannes Lion) and new clients from across the globe, which it says stemmed from its refusal to stop working and desire to solve problems with creativity.
Bickerstaff believes: “Sometimes a crisis may be your window of opportunity. The war complicates logistics and increases risks – which complicates the work of large international brands but gives a chance to local ones. It is the game of the bravest.”
Making the most of the opportunity offered by a crisis is something the Ukrainian PR Army emphasises, too, having amplifiied the voices of its members to comment across the global press. The group claims to have gained 2,228 pieces of coverage in 78 countries over the past year, appearing in outlets such as Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and the BBC.
Nina Kulchevish, the Ukrainian PR Army’s co-ordinator of disinformation debunking, says the spread of false information over the past year, which her organisation has been fighting, will inevitably lead to a higher standard of communication becoming a universal requirement, especially when shaping PR campaigns.
Ukrainian PR Army co-founder Anastasiia Marushevska adds that this is especially important because “in modern technological wars, victory is won not only on the real front, but also on the informational and cultural ones”.
She continues: “The democratic world must recognise that we’re all participants in the information war, and that the laws and rules of it have not yet been written.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the past year of conflict, says Antonina Ria, PR specialist at the Ukrainian PR Army, is a new type of communication that is classed as neither business nor government, but comes from society collectively, with “the goal of living in a free and strong country”.
This message of unity is one that Gallagher hopes the worldwide PR community will remember for future international crises, helping to drive an even swifter and more effective response.
He says: “I hope that maybe out of the organisational efforts that we put together for this situation, we’ll be left with some sort of infrastructure to help co-ordinate global communications around future issues and respond in real time.”
As PR Army co-founder Petryk puts it: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”