How Ukraine Is Winning The PR War

As Russia prepared to invade his country, many feared Ukraine’s president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, was in over his head. Before his election Zelensky was best known for starring in a popular TV series about a history teacher who wins the presidency after a video of his anti-government rant goes viral. And like his sitcom character, the real Zelensky was swept into office as an outsider who promised to end corruption. But he soon ran into obstacles, and his popularity suffered. Even after Putin began threatening aggression against Ukraine, Zelensky seemed unsure of himself; first, he sought to calm things down and avoid panic. Then the threat worsened, and he seemed to realize the stakes involved.

From everyman to wartime leader

Novelist James Lane Allen said that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. That may be a fair description of Zelensky’s improbable rise.

Less than a week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky is a wartime president, and one who is deftly using his performance and communications skills to inspire not only his own people, but the Western world. His status as an icon of leadership under fire peaked last week when Russian forces began to assault Kyiv. As the U.S. government and others urged him to evacuate and offered help, Zelensky refused to budge. “The fight is here (in Kyiv); I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said.

Ukraine has a natural advantage when it comes to perception. As a smaller country attacked by a cartoonishly autocratic dictator, it’s the David to Russia’s Goliath. But the rush of support wasn’t inevitable. (See: Yemen, Bosnia, and Crimea.) Zelensky and his advisers have deployed classic PR and propaganda tactics to win public opinion at home and abroad.

And at least some of the young president’s winning style is innate; he’s a performer after all. What’s fascinating is that he has harnessed his personal talent and bolstered it with sophisticated tactics to wage a credible PR war. Here’s how.

Speak directly to your audiences

Zelensky is a little like Donald Trump in that he has disintermediated the press. Trump famously derided the media and used Twitter as his platform of choice, going directly to his base. Zelensky has a similar reputation in Ukraine. His electoral campaign was almost entirely online. On rare occasions where he used the national media, he did so shrewdly, even hijacking the traditional New Year’s Eve address of the then-president by announcing his own candidacy. According to The Atlantic, his people maintained that “they do not need journalists in their efforts to communicate with the public, opting instead for social media and slickly produced ‘interviews’ carried out in-house.”

Since the invasion Zelensky has used messaging platform Telegram to speak directly to the Russian public to counter Putin’s version of events and urge them to protest the invasion. He continues to post short videos that reinforce his presence and the determination of Ukrainian citizens to defend their home. He has humanized Ukraine’s crisis and invoked powerful support.

Understand the power of imagery

A single screen-grab of Zelensky on the streets of Kyiv or huddled inside with his military staff is worth a thousand thunderous speeches. Contrast images of the young president with those of Putin — seated yards away from his generals at the end of a long table as they consult about war strategy. The Russian president is literally and figuratively isolated. Zelensky, by contrast, looks like an everyman, a relatable guy who is simply doing what anyone would do to protect his family and home. He could be your neighbor.

Be authentic

When it comes to authenticity, Zelensky was made for this moment. From his street selfies to his formal video appeal to European leaders, he comes across as the real deal. Russia has tried to foil his outreach by spreading rumors that Zelensky had fled, but the videos don’t lie. There’s just not much Putin can do to counter compelling images of a young leader, unshaven and exhausted, but calm and determined in the face of grave personal danger.

Own the information

Zelensky himself has morphed into an icon of leadership, but Ukraine’s sophisticated approach to information is also critical. And it has powerful allies. In a refreshing change, the big social media platforms have cracked down on Russian misinformation and many have banned Russian media outright in Ukraine. Aided by U.S. intelligence, Ukraine was able to expose a fake video of a Ukrainian “attack” on Russians, intended to provoke outrage and offer an excuse for the invasion. Social platforms are filled with posts about the heroic exploits of a legendary Ukrainian fighter pilot known as the “Ghost of Kyiv” who probably doesn’t exist. But much of the reporting is real. Look at the extraordinary recording of Ukrainian guards for an isolated outpost on Snake Island. The video features the Ukrainians cursing the Russian fleet in open defiance of warnings to surrender. It was everywhere on social media platforms and amplified on media channels in American living rooms.

Leverage your moment

A good crisis shouldn’t be wasted, as political experts say, and Zelensky has seized his opportunity to try for things that haven’t previously been possible. He is petitioning loudly for military support as well as quick entry into the European Union, which would be unprecedented. Addressing the European Parliament this week, he said, “We have proven our strength. So do prove that you are with us. Prove that you will not let us go. Prove that you indeed are Europeans.” Ukraine has inspired not only NGOs and ordinary citizens but businesses and brands that don’t normally wade into geopolitical issues.

Of course, inspiration may only go so far. Ukraine’s perseverance may not be enough for it to prevail, and the odds are long. But the massive outpouring of emotional, material, and financial support has been heartening, and it makes it impossible for us to turn away.

7 PR Tips For Digital Reputation Management

One foundation of a good public relations campaign is reputation management. Whether for a brand or an individual, most good PR people spend their time helping internal or external clients create a positive perception among key audiences or building a specific kind of reputation in the marketplace.

The growth of social and digital media, of course, presents both challenges and opportunities for reputation management. Digital content like customer reviews, blog posts, or social updates can help tell a story about professional expertise or insights. Conversely, the absence of a digital footprint can raise questions about career achievements or professional standing. It pays to stand out — but in a positive way.

The good news is there are tenets of reputation management that apply both professional and personal branding. Here’s how any professional can borrow PR expertise to build the reputation they want to convey to prospects, peers, and employers.

Maximize your digital footprint

You can’t manage everything on the web, but there’s plenty that is under your own control, and the first step is to optimize all the pages you own. Create personal and business sites that you manage where possible – on all search and social platforms. Make sure you own the domains for your name, and keep your information updated. Be present on key social media platforms, and post proactively. If it’s too overwhelming to make an impact on every platform, select the three most relevant ones and commit an hour a day to posting and responding to professional commentary. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are likely to be the most useful for digital reputation-building, and all are well optimized by Google.

Understand SEO basics

You don’t need to hire an SEO agency or be a search expert to take advantage of SEO principles, but it helps to grasp the basics. For most professionals, it comes down to an optimized web presence, regular production of fresh, relevant, high-quality content, and judicious use of relevant keywords. The first step is the creation of a website or page including the very terms and keywords that people searching for your expertise will use. It’s helpful to think like someone looking for your particular expertise; for example, our website emphasizes phrases like “top New York PR agency” and “best technology PR” instead of less searchable copy like “our clients love us.”  The most challenging piece for most professionals is content production, because it’s time-consuming, and it may not make a difference for several months. But Google rewards fresh, relevant content, so it pays to invest time in blogging, social updates, and comments on professional community sites. 

Don’t post or email anything you wouldn’t want made public

This includes social media, where an impulsive post or joke gone wrong can have real consequences…. just ask Justine Sacco. New college grads and others entering the labor market have started to understand this, but unfortunate mistakes happen. It may be a tougher lesson for more established professionals, possibly because they have a false sense of security about presumably private communications like email. The point is, almost no digital communication is really private.

Cultivate advocates

Networking, both on and offline, is key to building a resilient reputation for professionalism or for a specific type of expertise. Become a member of professional online communities; be known for your insights, collegiality, or responsiveness. Be generous with your time, ideas, and feedback. Participation in a professional community will offer a payback in search ranking support, reputation enhancement, and new relationships.

Be a thought leader

My grandmother used to say, small people talk about other people, big people talk about ideas. Okay, the advice is a little shopworn, and not everyone can or wants to be an industry thought leader. But aligning your name and/or company to a central idea, mission, or unique aspect of your identity is a simple and authentic way to build your reputation both on and offline. It should appear in your LinkedIn profile, on your website, your Twitter bio, and be frequently mentioned in the content you create.

Tell your story

The best way to do this is by blogging. Yes, it’s a serious commitment of time and ideas and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, because an out-of-date blog sends a bad message. But weekly posts about the problems, issues, and insights relevant to clients, customers, prospective employers, and potential employees is the single most powerful way to build a reputation in sync with professional goals. If a regular blog is too much, consider becoming a contributor of guest posts to the most well-read blogs or publications in your industry.

Learn how to apologize

Someone criticizes you on social media, or a negative review of your business is posted. Don’t overreact, but do respond – with professionalism. If there’s a legitimate gripe, accept responsibility, apologize, and take steps to correct the situation. It’s amazing how humanizing a humble response to criticism can be for a business brand.