On the tenth day of the war in Ukraine Olga Kokoshko left her home in Kyiv and drove a blue jeep carrying her mum, her best friend and her two cats, Pony and Joe, around bombed-out bridges towards the Polish border. Kokoshko wasn’t just driving away from Russian bombardment, she was also on a mission to save her advertising agency, Nebo.
For the business to survive, its managing director knew she would need to find new customers in Europe. “Almost all our Ukrainian clients cancelled their projects,” she says. But she also believed she needed to keep Nebo alive for the war effort; she believed the agency could help Ukraine win.
As she anticipated, professionals from Ukraine’s advertising and PR industries have played a critical role in shaping the global narrative about the war.
“We want to make sure the whole world is looking and listening to us,” says Kokoshko. One early Nebo campaign persuaded brands to stop using the letter Z — a Russian symbol for the occupation—in their logos. In March the Zurich Insurance group changed its logo because of the conflict, a decision that Kokoshko takes credit for.
This type of messaging doesn’t run parallel to fighting on the ground, it influences it directly. “War is inherently psychological so you have to get the right messaging out and you can amplify that using the internet,” says James Sullivan, director of cyber research at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) think tank. A country’s war narrative can affect how willing soldiers are to risk their lives or whether people living in an allied state support paying for more weapons.
Some agencies, like Nebo, are promoting pro-Ukrainian messages on their own initiative. Others are working pro bono directly for the Kyiv government.
External communications are mainly run out of the Ministry of Information Policy, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Digital Ministry also have their own messaging. The exact dynamics are unlikely to become clear until after the war. But between them, Ukraine has achieved on social media what Britain did with propaganda posters in the Second World War. Across different platforms, local politicians and official accounts repeat simple messages that can be easily remembered and shared.
The country’s wartime messaging needs to speak to multiple audiences at once: in Ukraine, in Russia, in the world at large.
The messaging app Telegram has been the most influential platform inside the country but Ukrainians have also had success mobilising Twitter, Instagram and, most startlingly, TikTok, a video app previously known for sharing dance moves and lip-syncing efforts, to broadcast visceral impressions of the war.
Then there is President Zelensky himself, a former actor and instinctive communicator who began the year out of favour with his public and apparently convinced that no invasion was imminent.
Since the war began he has been reinvented as a hero of the free world.
The transformation was deftly choreographed. He swapped his suits for military green and filmed selfie videos on the streets of Kyiv, as if ready to fight. Government ministers shared images of their president dressed as Superman. He made virtual speeches to parliaments around the world, each of them tailored to his audience for maximum impact. When he wanted to appeal for more international aid, he did it by turning himself into a hologram, guaranteeing yet more headlines.
In June, he spoke at Glastonbury, urging festivalgoers to pressure their politicians to restore peace.
Zelensky also used that speech to promote Ukraine’s new English-language digital media channel called United24. According to a slick promo video, the channel’s aim will be to rebrand the country’s pre-war reputation — which the video states is associated with corruption and fistfights in parliament — and show people the “real Ukraine”.
A growing roster of visiting politicians (Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz) and celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Bono, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Ellie Goulding, Jessica Chastain) has helped to secure further coverage. After Chastain’s visit last Sunday, Zelensky posted a picture of the two of them on Telegram with the caption: “For us, such visits of famous people are extremely valuable. Thanks to this, the world will hear, know, and understand the truth about what is happening in our country even more.”
Heroes and myths
When fighting first broke out, the country’s official social media accounts focused on sharing stories of extraordinary — even unbelievable — tales of heroism. In late February, a rumour began circulating about The Ghost of Kyiv, a lone Ukrainian pilot who circled the skies above the capital, shooting down Russian jets. But when the official Twitter account of Ukraine shared what it said was a video of the pilot in action, internet users were quick to point out the footage was fake: it had been ripped from a video game.
That was a misstep for the Ukrainian government, which needs to gain and maintain trust to be considered an antidote to Russia. Ukraine’s air force later admitted the story of a lone pilot was a myth. “Please do not fill the info space with fakes!” its official Facebook page said in April.
Government officials stopped focusing on extraordinary examples of bravery and started spotlighting small, everyday acts of courage instead. The “Brave” campaign was launched by the Digital Ministry in partnership with a Kyiv advertising agency, called Banda. The project published videos showing ordinary people being brave in the face of war — putting out fires after airstrikes or rescuing abandoned dogs.
That campaign, like many of Zelensky’s own social media posts, was published in two languages: Ukrainian and English.
To keep up morale at home, there are regular presidential addresses and updates on TV or Telegram. “Transparency about what’s happening and how it’s being handled [creates] trust,” says Tetiana Gaviuk, a PR expert who is now working with the aid organisation Nonviolent Peaceforce inside Ukraine. But reaching some Ukrainians is easier than others. In Ukraine’s east, areas under Russian control have been cut off from Ukrainian internet and phone networks.
Government employees and volunteers have also been trying to communicate with ordinary Russians, whose media and social media is now heavily censored. In June, Kokoshko’s agency Nebo launched its Torrents of Truth campaign, where short five-minute mini documentaries about the war were disguised as The Batman movie and smuggled onto websites used by Russians to illegally download films.
Metallica and memes
One key message since the start of the conflict has been that Ukraine can defeat Russia. To get that message across, government departments have to find a way to revel in successes without sharing too much tactical information. Ukraine did not officially claim responsibility when nine warplanes were destroyed at an air base in Russian-annexed Crimea on Tuesday, but two days later the Ukrainian defence ministry warned on Twitter that it was too hot for Russian guests to visit the disputed peninsula this summer. “No amount of sunscreen will protect them,” it said.
This coy approach signals that Ukraine did this, without giving away any tradecraft, says Laura Edelson, a computer scientist at New York University who has been studying Ukraine’s online wartime messaging. It shows “that they can take out the planes that have been inflicting such terror on the Ukrainian population for so many months. That is incredibly important for morale at home,” she says.
The message that victory is achievable is essential to convince the West to keep the flow of weapons coming. One type of long-range rocket launcher known as a Himars, which the US has been shipping to Ukraine, has been turned into a social media in-joke or “meme”. At the start of August, Ukraine’s defence ministry Twitter account posted a video montage of Himars attacks set to a background of the heavy metal band Metallica. “It’s Himars o’clock,” the video said in fiery letters.
But as the conflict drags into its sixth month, Ukraine’s war story is being tested. The simple narrative that President Zelensky still repeats on his Instagram — that the future of Europe rests on the fate of Ukraine — is losing its impact. People in the West are distracted by domestic politics or the rising cost of living. Support for Ukraine is slipping.
When YouGov asked 1,600 Britons if they would back increased sanctions against Russia even if it meant a significant increase in energy prices, the number who said “no” ticked up between the start and end of June.
“Public opinion is slightly turning,” says Paul Baines, professor of political marketing at the University of Leicester’s School of Business, who believes Britons now see a direct link between helping Ukraine and their energy bills. “People are starting to question, is it worth it?”
In recent weeks, a new willingness to criticise Ukraine has started to emerge. American news outlets, including NPR and The New York Times, have published stories referencing White House mistrust towards the Zelensky administration, which for years has been plagued by allegations of corruption.
Last week, Amnesty International released a report alleging that the fighting tactics of the Ukrainian military were endangering civilians, prompting the director of Amnesty Ukraine to resign. Russia was quick to amplify Amnesty’s verdict. “Exactly what Russia has been saying all along,” the Russian embassy in the UK posted on Twitter, just hours after the report’s release.
The Ukrainian president and his wife Olena were also criticised for appearing in a Vogue photoshoot. Shot by the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz against dramatic wartime backdrops, the cover story was designed to boost Ukraine’s visibility and provided a morale boost at home, says Edelson. It was also called tone-deaf by some, particularly social media commentators abroad. In other words, it epitomised the delicate balance that the country must navigate to keep its messaging fresh and reach new audiences.
Shifting public opinion in the West is an existential threat for Zelensky. “If the simple narrative of ‘Russia needs to leave Ukraine’ is muddied, that is obviously very problematic for Ukraine and Ukrainians — and in my view, for European security,” says Joanna Szostek, a lecturer in political communication at the University of Glasgow.
War is always messy. “Neither side is likely to come out clean,” said the Kyiv Independent newspaper in a recent editorial criticising the Amnesty International report. The Ghost of Kyiv episode proved that the Ukrainians can adapt when their credibility is in danger of being eroded. But now Zelensky needs to find a way to reinvigorate his wartime message while ensuring that the central argument about why Ukraine deserves our support does not get lost or even diluted. As Ukraine has already told you, the country and the future of Europe depends on it.