Managing Ukraine’s nation brand during a war

Nearly a year ago today, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. As missiles targeted major cities across the country, the team at Ukraine’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs launched a communication strategy intent on managing and communicating the nation’s narrative to the wider world. Maria Lypiatska, Head of BRAND UKRAINE and Strategic Communications Advisor for the MFA, outlines how they’re telling Ukraine’s story to the world during a war and shares lessons from crisis communications that hopefully you’ll never need to use.


Thank you for joining us for an interview, Maria. You mentioned at City Nation Place Global last November that you knew the war with Russia was coming and developed your strategy accordingly. When the reality of the situation hit, how did your strategy play out? What needed changing once you were actively countering the invasion?


The war didn’t start for us on 24 February 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Then, we were caught off guard, and the world stood by. In many ways, this was because we weren’t prepared for the amount of Russian propaganda abroad. This time we were prepared. We knew we had to be ready for any scenario, including a full-scale war.

Since the summer of 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Strategic Communications team started to prepare contingency plans, outlining the main protocols for actions for MFA’s communications team in case of various scenarios – from disinformation attacks, acts of terrorism, intensification of hostilities on the temporarily occupied territories of Lugansk and Donetsk regions, through to the full-scale invasion.

Maintaining coordination between the different parts of MFA, including the embassies abroad, was at the center of these protocols.

In the first hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24th February 2022, the last scenario - for the full-scale invasion - was unrolled. The most crucial thing was to set the narrative that it was a war of aggression. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba in his first tweet on the morning of 24th February clearly stated that Russia launched a full-scale invasion, and that Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now. We made a call for practical steps instead of emotions.

Our team immediately saw enormous interest online - Google trends of “Ukraine” keyword reached an unprecedented 100 out of 100 points that week - from audiences all over the world searching for answers to the questions of why Russia attacked Ukraine and what was going on in Ukraine, and we knew we had to act quickly and meet that demand with verified and fact-based information, particularly bearing in mind that Russia intensified its disinformation efforts.

It was clear that Russia didn’t just want our land. They wanted to destroy the very idea of Ukraine - our statehood, our identity - and take away our freedom. Telling the world Ukraine’s story was a matter of survival. We had the world's attention, and we had to tell the world who we are, what we stand for, and make them care.

Therefore, navigating air raids between the office and the bomb shelter, we’ve started updating Ukraine’s official website and social media accounts with verified information from official sources. On the 7th day of the Russian invasion, we launched war.ukraine.ua – the official website of Ukraine, a multilingual digital platform for foreign audiences about Russia's war on Ukraine, managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine together with BRAND UKRAINE. The website provides verified, up-to-date information in 8 languages, shares the stories of Ukrainian heroes and war survivors, documents Russia's war crimes, and explains the contexts behind Ukraine's past, present, and future.

We anticipated and prepared many things in advance but if I were to choose the key lesson for crisis communication of this magnitude, I would say put coordination first and creative solutions second.


What’s been the secret to successfully countering disinformation from Russia?


The most effective way of countering Russian propaganda is by telling your own story. Debunking fake news and disinformation narratives is also needed, but if it’s the only strategy, you will always be catching up.

Proactive communication is the strategy our team chose years before Russia’s full-scale invasion and that is the path we have stayed on and reinforced on 24 February.

ukraine.ua alongside channels of the President of Ukraine, Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, and many others have become powerful and trustworthy voices of truth and verified information about the Russian invasion and Ukraine’s fight for freedom and its future.

Ukraine told the world its story and the world believed and supported us.


Part of the strength of your strategy has been the co-ordination between everyone telling your story – from yourselves to President Zelenskyy to your Ukrainian diaspora. Has this happened organically, or have you been helping to coordinate efforts?


From the very first hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the most important narrative was a narrative about people’s war. Literally every Ukrainian stood against Russian troops, either volunteering, helping evacuate people and pets from the war-affected areas, raising donations, or fighting on the information front of the country. This fact-based narrative was key to counter Russia’s lies about a “Nazi government” in Kyiv which is somehow separate from the people of Ukraine who, as Russians falsely claimed, didn’t really want to oppose Russian occupation.

We’ve started collecting these stories of heroism and unity on the war.ukraine.ua platform, telling stories of a girl who evacuated dogs and cats from the shelter in Irpin, or a story of a guy who with his bare hands carried a mine away from the road - stories of volunteers on the frontline and many, many more.

Consistent messaging and everyday video addresses from the President of Ukraine, statements by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense, and other dedicated speakers ensured one voice policy in both international media and among Ukrainian society and diaspora abroad.

Ukraine.ua has also become a platform that mirrored this messaging thus contributing to the overall efforts.

Thanks to these coordinated actions, Ukraine managed to set the narrative and influence the media discourse around Russia’s invasion.


A key part of your strategy has been authenticity – putting real people in the focus to keep the human elements. How have you been collecting those stories? Have citizens been helping to co-create the content?


Powerful and emotional human stories have been the focus of all our activities and I believe this is the key reason of success of Ukraine’s international communications.

War is not faceless and telling stories of real people - their destinies, dreams, and hopes that were taken away and destroyed by Russia - made the most powerful impact on our audiences and conveyed our messages way more intensely than figures and statistics.

This was indeed a co-creation process. Our team was looking for powerful stories, collaborating with media and journalists, but also receiving these stories and interviews from people reaching out to us directly. One of our projects -  Witnessing the war - was one the most visually and emotionally strong projects where we asked Ukrainian and world celebrities to voice real stories of survivors of Russia’s war crimes with Ukrainian motion designers creating unique visual style and animation for each story.

We’ve also reached out to our audiences directly asking them questions on Instagram stories, for instance about what we are fighting for or what life lessons they can share with the world.


Last year, we heard from Volodymyr Sheiko, General Director of the Ukrainian Institute, who shared insights into Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy strategy. How are you working to ensure that Ukraine’s cultural heritage survives the conflict?


One of the goals of the Russian full-scale invasion is to destroy the very identity of the Ukrainian nation - its unique culture, and language. Therefore, it was and remains important for our team to shed light on the deliberate destruction of our cultural heritage by the Russian army. On Ukraine.ua we covered heartbreaking stories of damaged and looted Kherson museum, destroyed Skovoroda museum, damaged Stone Babas in the Kharkiv region, and many others.

On #WorldHeritageDay we urged the world to save Ukraine's unique cultural heritage, centuries of architecture, art, human passion, history, and beauty, facing bombings and destruction every day. Jointly with Ukrainian artists, we launched ArtАgainstWar and Destroyed, cultural heritage campaigns which aimed to consolidate the world’s support for Ukraine and spread the word about Russia deliberately destroying Ukraine’s heritage.

 

International media can often have a short attention span. How are you continuing to engage media attention as the war progresses?


The most effective way is to follow the “always on” approach. We rely on continuity and consistency in our communication to become the go-to partner for the international media once their interest and attention are back on Ukraine. We observe rather fluctuating interest from the media in their engagement, which is naturally driven by the moments of escalation in the war. Hence, our approach is to consistently publish in-depth stories and more analytical, long-term retrospective views to get media attention back on the topics that are relevant and important for Ukraine.


What are you putting in place to try and maintain your own and the team’s mental health and personal resilience?


That’s one of the most challenging tasks nowadays for our team. I believe that understanding the role each and every team member plays on the information front of the country is the most powerful personal motivation. That’s what keeps everyone going, but that’s also something that blurs boundaries between work and life thus making the life-work balance hard to maintain.

Living in the war, even if you are not on the frontline, creates a permanent stressful environment that hinders personal physical capabilities and specifically mental health.  Especially as time passes it became more and more evident for our team.

We’ve introduced in BRAND UKRAINE a mental health day-off where every team member can take a day off from work if they feel down. And I believe the most powerful tool is peer-to-peer support. We practice sharing sessions where everyone can bring up a certain topic or issue that bothers them and discuss it with others.


If there was one lesson that you wanted other place branders to learn from your experience, what would it be?


A country brand cannot be created or constructed. It has to be real. Reputation must be earned. What the world saw since 24 February and admired was the true essence of our country and its people. And that what made it so powerful and trustworthy. Ukraine’s story is real.


Thank you for sharing that, Maria. Our thoughts and hopes are with you in Ukraine.

 

If you would be interested in donating your time, skills, or energy to support Maria and the team at Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, please email maria.lypiatska@mfa.gov.ua. Alternatively, if you have any data about perceptions of Ukraine within your country, that would be greatly appreciated.

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