One Year In, Lessons Learned on the Ukrainian PR Playbook

vector illustration of Ukraine President Zelensky

It is becoming increasingly clear that key players in the ongoing war in Ukraine have emerged as some of the most effective strategic communicators in geopolitics. On a daily basis they are leveraging strategic communications to present compelling narratives shaping public opinion and galvanizing both support and action from governments, the private sector and other stakeholders.

In particular, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team have demonstrated a mastery of public relations over the past year, with him becoming a beloved and well-respected man of the people—a true symbol of Ukrainian grit, resilience and, importantly, alignment with Western democratic values.

Visibility Creates Unity

Some hours after Russia launched its devastating invasion one year ago, Zelenskyy appeared in an online video not from a secured bunker nor from the safety of a distant European capital, but rather, on the streets of central Kyiv where he conveyed true solidarity with Ukraine—and Ukrainians—when he boldly and defiantly declared, “We are here….we are defending our independence, our state, and we will continue to do so." So marked the beginning of an enduring global adoration by both the Ukrainian public and audiences worldwide.

Throughout the past year, Zelensky has appeared in countless (virtual and in-person) speaking engagements with critical allies—U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, British Parliament, NATO, World Economic Forum, etc.—to make thoughtful, compelling and often heart-wrenching appeals for the placement of targeted sanctions, military support and humanitarian aid.

Think Beyond a Traditional Audience

Thinking beyond purely political audiences, Zelenskyy tactfully navigated non-traditional, high-profile public appearances for a wartime president, popping up on screen at the Golden Globes, Grammys, Venice Film Festival and even a David Letterman Netflix special, where he further solidified his status as a darling of the free world, and, not surprisingly, Time magazine's Person of the Year for 2022.

The messaging conveyed across these influential platforms was simple and effective: Ukraine, too, is a freedom-loving, democratic country, and we need your help.

While undoubtedly major challenges remain militarily, not to mention the investments and resources that will ultimately be required to begin the rebuilding and economic recovery of Ukraine, the public relations campaigns conducted by, and on behalf of, Ukraine have produced some remarkable results.

Notably, Ukraine and Ukrainian officials continue to dominate the headlines of top-tier publications and nightly news broadcasts, broad and powerful sanctions have been placed on key individuals in Russia and Russian companies, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is effectively dead, and Congress and the EU nations have approved billions in additional aid and military support for Ukraine.

PR Masterclass

So what conclusions can the global PR industry draw from Ukraine as the war marks its one year anniversary?

  • In short, the demand for smart and savvy firms that are able to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of how public affairs, geopolitics, media and stakeholder engagement, targeted thought leadership and profile raising intersect to achieve results that are both meaningful and measurable, is profoundly increasing.
  • Choosing the right platform, then tailoring your message adequately for its audience, is another imperative.
  • Evolving the narrative over time can help maintain media interest over a long term.
  • Building a team with diverse experience and knowledge is critical to crafting informed and impactful messaging for clients with global interests and stakeholders.
  • Having a strong network of partners and affiliates across international markets is also fundamental to ensuring a deep understanding of the factors that could help or hinder the client’s ability to achieve its communications goals. A number of firms based in the U.S.— and in other key markets around the world—have played a commendable role in providing valuable communications support for Ukraine and President Zelenskyy over the past twelve months. However, like any prolonged conflict, the challenge will inevitably be to sustain the required momentum—not to mention support and aid—until victory is achieved.

Andrew Frank is the Founder and President of KARV Communications, a New York-based strategic communications firm. The firm won the PRNEWS Platinum "Best in Show" award in 2022 for its campaign, Amplifying the Ukrainian Narrative Amidst a Geopolitical and Humanitarian Crisis, on behalf of the Ukrainian oil and gas association.