PR and propaganda in Ukraine

Photo of Nataliya Popovych, co-founder and board member of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Nataliya Popovych, co-founder and board member of the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre. Photo credit: Andras Sztaniszlav

Public relations in the minds of many people is equated with publicity and spin or even with propaganda, but PR professionals know that it’s none of these things. On Thursday evening CIPR International hosted an excellent discussion on the work of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. The Ukraine Crisis Media Center describes itself as:

“Ukraine Crisis Media Center was set up in March 2014 to provide the international community with objective information about events in Ukraine and threats to national security, particularly in the military, political, economic, energy and humanitarian spheres. The Center is providing media support on a 24/7 basis to all those covering events in Ukraine and runs a daily schedule of live press briefings and moderated discussions to provide the world with accurate and up-to-date information about the fast-moving situation in Ukraine. Since inception the Center has evolved into a key communications hub with outreach to both internal audiences in Ukraine as well as conducting active outreach to opinion formers and the media outside of Ukraine.”

Eva Maclaine, CIPR board member and chair of CIPR International started the session by highlighting the differences between public relations and propaganda. She then introduced Warwick Partington of the MTM Centre for Leadership and Management Development introduced the discussion with an illuminating presentation on how the international media is covering the conflict in Ukraine.

He then handed over to Nataliya Popovych who is a co-founder and board member of the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, while also being president of PRP, a Moscow-based communications consultancy. Nataliya talked about how the UCMC was set up and the work it now does.

Photo of Stuart Bruce moderating the Davos World Communication Forum in Kyiv

Stuart Bruce moderating the Davos World Communication Forum in Kyiv

Last October I had the privilege of being the chief moderator at the Kyiv session of the Davos World Communication Forum where I met volunteers from the UCMC, many of who work in public relations for companies and PR consultancies. Much of what Nataliya talked about was therefore familiar to me as I’d heard Ivetta Delikatna, coordinator of national campaigns at UCMC, talk about them.

It was still fascinating to be reminded of aspects of the information war between Ukraine and Russia. Many of Nataliya’s examples were of photographs being used by news organisations and appearing on social media which claimed to show atrocities committed by Ukrainian forces, but could be proved to have actually been taken elsewhere. For example a photograph of a child wasn’t from Donetsk as claimed, but from the fighting in Syria.

This was a good example of why PR professionals involved in issues management and crisis communications need to use advanced digital communications skills to help them identify false and misleading information. A good reference for doing this is the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Centre.

Stuart Bruce, Lars Hilse, Gianni Catalfamo and Maxim Behar in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv for the Davos World Communication Forum.

Stuart Bruce, Lars Hilse, Gianni Catalfamo and Maxim Behar in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv for the Davos World Communication Forum.

After the two presentations there was time for an interesting question and answer session. The most interesting questions for me came from Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief of The Holmes Report (mainly because it similar to the ones I was going to ask!) Arun asked what impact running the UCMC had on Nataliya heading up a PR consultancy based in Moscow and secondly about the funding of UCMC. She explained why it was possible to minimise negative business impact and gave an outline of some of the centre’s funders who are also listed on its website.

While it was a fascinating event I do feel it would have been stronger if there had been a greater variety of voices. Both speakers and most of the questions came from a very pro-Ukrainian point of view with nobody to explain the Russian perspective. To me this felt at odds with the importance of understanding the difference between public relations and propaganda. For those unaware of at least some of the many nuances of the conflict it would have left them unclear about all of the reasons for the conflict. But I’m also aware of how much work it is for volunteers to pull together excellent events like this.

I’ve used Storify to collate some of the tweets from participants at the event.