UKRAINE'S IMAGE WOES

EDITORIAL: Brand Ukraine needs to aggressively marketed to global audiences

Ukraine’s low international profile is a national security threat and a barrier to the kind of investment necessary to fuel the country’s European transition

Image issues: Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe and can feed the world - but the country is more likely to be associated by outside audiences with corruption, war and poverty
Peter Dickinson, Business Ukraine magazine
Saturday, 09 July 2016 16:35

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to welcome dozens of friends and family members to Kyiv. Some of these guests have been seasoned globetrotters. Others have been less adventurous types whose idea of exotica extends as far the beaches of North Wales. Without exception, these first-time visitors to Ukraine have all told me exactly the same thing: “It is so much nicer than I expected.”

This common reaction tells us two things – firstly, Ukraine has a poor international reputation that serves to keep expectations lower than a snake’s belly. Secondly, Ukraine is actually a beautiful and welcoming place capable of enchanting even the most jaded of international travelers. I would imagine most Kyiv expats have had similar experiences of their own when hosting international visitors. Those who come to Ukraine tend to fall in love with the place – or at the very least, they leave with a sense that negative outside perceptions about the country are wildly exaggerated.

Sadly, the opposite is also true. When travelling internationally, people tend to react to news that you live in Ukraine with patronizingly polite interest or thinly disguised indifference. They generally know next to nothing about the country, but still manage to be distinctly unimpressed. Saying you are from Ukraine is often either a conversation killer or an invitation to launch into ill-informed diatribes about geopolitics.

In light of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, these long-standing image problems have taken on an importance that transcends mere PR. The general lack of international awareness about modern Ukrainian realities has made the country uniquely vulnerable to Russia’s cleverly coordinated information war offensives. Ukraine’s failure to represent itself on the global stage has presented the Kremlin with what amounts to a blank canvas on which to draw its appalling caricatures of fascist mobs and genocidal neo-Nazis.

Significant numbers of people around the world have readily accepted these slurs at face value, basing their judgment on an indifference towards Ukraine itself coupled with a belief in conspiracy theories portraying the Euromaidan Revolution as some kind of globalist plot. Many more have reacted with skepticism to the Russian narrative, but have been sufficiently discouraged to decide that the Ukrainian issue is simply too complex – and too sullied – to be worth engaging. This muddying of international perceptions has been the Kremlin’s greatest triumph and Ukraine’s biggest defeat.

Winning the information war does not mean simply debunking Russian lies or exposing the endless parade of Kremlin fakes. In many ways, responding to Moscow’s information attacks only serves to strengthen the credibility of Russian talking points. Instead, Ukraine needs to establish its own narratives. The Ukrainian authorities should be looking to highlight all the things that delight and surprise visitors to the country. The government must also get much better at communicating reform success stories and promoting investment opportunities.  The most innovative sectors of the economy should feature at as many international events as possible. The most progressive members of contemporary Ukrainian society, including Euro-Optimist MPs and civic society activists, should enjoy unofficial ambassadorial status.

Image issues can play a central role in Ukraine’s future success. The current priority is to move beyond perceptions of the country as a chronically unstable warzone. Ukraine is clearly a victim of Russian aggression, but the world does not run on sympathy. Victim status will not attract the kind of international investment Ukraine needs. Nor will condemnation of Russian crimes necessarily translate into support for Ukraine’s European ambitions. Instead, Brand Ukraine must sell itself to international audiences by basing its messaging on positivity and opportunities. Ukraine has a huge amount to offer the outside world – but at present there are very few people beyond Ukraine’s borders who realize this. Unless Ukraine aggressively promotes itself, this will remain the case.  

 

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