Communicating in a War Zone: 8 Lessons from the Front Lines of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

MacPaw’s MacPaw’s founder and CEO Alexander Kosovan gives an interview during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This is the story that Eugene Kalnyk, PR Specialist at MacPaw, based in Kyiv, Ukraine, told to attendees at the 2022 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement. And, yes (I know you are wondering), they even measured their PR results while their country was being invaded.

With 30 million users, MacPaw is a brand familiar to Mac users and many PC users as well. It makes the popular CleanMyMac and CleanMyPC software, as well as a number of other tools to clean up your files and keep your computer safer.

Eugene Kalnyk joined us virtually for the 2021 Measurement Summit. Then in January, he and his co-worker Julia Petryk, came back for more measurement lessons during last winter’s Measurement Base Camp. As rumors of a potential Russian invasion started dominating the headlines, Measurement Campers would get regular updates on life in Kyiv.

But after February 24th there was radio silence. We heard not a word for several months until Eugene checked in to say that they were both safe and working to help fight Russian disinformation. We anxiously awaited the next check in, and when it came a few months ago we realized what a valuable story they had to tell. And so we invited him to speak at this year’s Summit.

Communicating from a war zone has its unique challenges, but the lessons that Eugene and his colleagues at MacPaw learned apply to comms professionals everywhere. And, as the number of life-threatening crises in the world escalates — be they climate disasters, mass shootings, protests, or armed conflict — the odds are good that on any given day communications professions will need to learn from the MacPaw playbook.

Chapter 1: Life during wartime

As rumors began to spread in late 2021 of a potential Russian invasion, MacPaw started putting together a plan and a strategy. With no specifics it was hard to prepare, but they assumed a number of potential risks, specifically:

  • Physical danger to team members
  • No internet connection
  • Office occupied by invaders
  • Increased cyber-attacks on company servers
  • Increased phishing attacks
  • Unauthorized access to data
  • Hardware supply chain disruptions

From this scary list, (which could apply to communicators everywhere these days, be they on Capital Hill, Tampa, Florida or Sydney, Australia), it was easy to establish priorities. Priority number one was to keep everyone safe and to know if someone wasn’t. Priority number two was the security and stability of MacPaw services. With 30 million users worldwide, the corporate infrastructure had to keep on working no matter what.

From those priorities emerged the action plan. Data and infrastructure was moved to the cloud. Spare equipment was purchased and a satellite internet system put in place. A hotel was secured 170 miles west of Kyiv to provide a safe place for team members to go.

Lesson 1: You can prepare a plan, but you can’t prepare for war. Still, a plan helps.

Tip #1: Add check-in procedures — and maybe a backpack — to your crisis plan.

Being a company of developers, the first thing MacPaw did was to develop a check-in app called Together that enabled employees to let others know their location and if they were safe.

The company also provided all team members with emergency backpacks containing food, first aid kits, sleeping bags, and necessary documents. They trained everyone in basic first aid as well as educating them on how disinformation works and how to build up your psychological resilience under pressure.

Once the staff and infrastructure were secured, they turned to preparing a statement to let customers know what was going on. What they didn’t plan for was the personal and emotional toll that foreign invasion brought with it.

Eugene admitted that, “When I got the text from my wife saying ’It has begun‘ and heard explosions in the background, I had a panic attack. For ten minutes I couldn’t calm down.“ But, he knew he had a job to do: Put out a statement to tell customers and the media what it meant for their users.

That simple task, Eugene said, “Gave me a sense of purpose and I got to work.” His statement, and the response sent in response to customers’ requests, were stunning in their understatement:

This was the message the users saw:

And this was the photo that Eugene took as he was evacuating Kyiv for safer quarters in the west:

Lesson 2: Make sure to test every step of your plan before the emergency hits.

As he was desperately trying to get out the MacPaw statement on every possible channel, he discovered the first glitch in their plan. The carefully crafted message was only text. No photos. You can’t post to Instagram without a photo, and he couldn’t access or post photos from where he was. Fortunately, a fellow team member in the U.S. was able to jump in and help.

In the meantime, team members were camped out in the Kyiv metro station, waiting for trains to the west:

Lesson 3: When you feel anxious, focus on something small that you can actually control.

Eugene wasn’t the only one having panic attacks, everyone was quite naturally on edge. They all had tasks to do, which helped the team focus and keep on functioning.

Lesson 4: Support your teammates and they will support you. Together you are stronger.

MacPaw stands out from many of its fellow tech companies by maintaining a strong giving culture. MacPaw’s founder and CEO Alexander Kosovan started the company in college, and is still clearly passionate about what he does. He is now funding other projects and students and aiding his fellow Ukrainians through the MacPaw Foundation (more on that later). What the whole company realized is that when they worked together and relied on each other the energy was immense. “To us it looked like anything was possible if we came together.”

Chapter 2: The fight for the truth

Naturally, once the team was safe and operations secure, they began to look around to see how they could help. And the biggest threat was something they could do something about: Russian disinformation. “We made it our mission to tell the world the truth,” Eugene said.

Their product ClearVPN allows users to get around media sensors in Russia and other countries. They provided it for free, along with a coupon to anyone who needed it to share the truth, especially those inside Russia who were against the war. Ukrainians also used it to share evidence about Russian war crimes.

They also made their product, CleanMyMac, free for all journalists covering the war in Ukraine. It ensures that their computers are clean, fast, and free from junkware.

Julia, who also teaches communications, used her vast network to pull together PR pros from around Europe to tell the truth about Russian actions. They used blogs, email, traditional, and social media. Dubbed ”The PR Army,” their stories were published both in English and Russian to make sure that messages from the Ukrainian government were getting through.

The PR Army now includes more than 200 communication professionals that help Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry to spread Ukraine’s messages and counter Russian disinformation. It functions as a giant pro-Ukraine PR firm, handling journalist requests, providing eyewitness stories featuring Ukrainian voices, monitoring for disinformation, and fundraising. So far they’ve placed more than 1600 pieces in 40 different countries, with over 150 eyewitness stories.

Doing what they do best

The advantage of a company of programmers who want to help fight the war is that they can keep on working, even in bomb shelters:

One of the first things they did was to make the Together app available for use by anyone, anywhere. Then they added shortcuts to existing products to quickly allow users to activate privacy features, and pointed people to ways to help, or spread the news, or sign petitions. They added Ukrainian colors to their products and incorporated Ukrainian folk embroidery into their website.

They also promoted a collection of apps created by Ukrainian developers to drive more revenue to those developers. Some even donated their earnings to the Ukrainian cause.

CEO Alex Kosovan was the perfect spokesperson, staying in Kyiv to conduct dozens of media interviews, create viral videos, and walk his talk. See him in the image up top, giving a CNN interview from Kyiv. Eugene admits “We didn’t have a designated spokesperson as part of our plan, but Alex was perfect for that role.”

Alex worked out of his underground parking garage during air raids. And here’s his Tesla stuffed with potatoes and food, which he personally delivered to those in need:

All the efforts were not lost on their customers, who began donating to the Ukrainian cause. The support team was buoyed by messages like these:

Which compensated for the frequently hostile messages they were receiving from their Russian users.

Lesson 5: Be consistent with your values. Show your real character in the face of adversity.

Eugene credits their success to the consistency of MacPaw’s values. Those values are:

  • Make impact,
  • Create experience, and
  • Stay human.

Says Eugene, “We know it is okay to speak up because there are people behind the business that know what you are going through, share your values, and will support you the whole way.”

Lesson 6: Realize that most customers will still expect the same level of service. Openly communicate what you can and cannot do at the moment.

Beyond the app, MacPaw’s team still had a responsibility to their customers. As more team members found safe places, developing new apps became possible. One of their developers came up with SpyBuster, software that scans your machine to check for apps that are based in Russia. (Data stored in Russia is vulnerable to Russian security scrutiny.) They soon incorporated it into their flagship product, CleanMyMacX, to enable users to keep their devices free from spyware. “One of the things that kept us going was having a chance to deliver something to the world despite the threat to our lives,” explains Kalnyk. 

And you think you don’t have time for measurement?

And of course, as these new products were rolled out, Kalnyk and his PR team had to announce them. They found themselves finishing press releases in bomb shelters and anywhere else they could work. For those of us who have struggled to get a single release written, approved, and distributed in a month, the idea that MacPaw could get out eight press announcements in the first month of a war is truly astonishing.

Of course, being the measurement mavens they are, they even measured their results using a Media Quality Index they took home from our Measurement Base Camp. Not surprisingly, with all the activity, their quality score jumped 200%. Proactive PR generated 40% of the coverage, the other 60% came from responding to journalists’ requests. 

Lesson 7: A lot of energy will be unleashed. Make sure to use it right and remember the importance of recovery and self-care.

Eugene stressed that while it was a natural reaction to focus so much energy on overcoming all these challenges, the MacPaw team learned that they needed to remind people to rest and recover. One thing that helped team members have hope was the MacPaw Foundation.

MacPaw established the MacPaw Foundation before the war to celebrate its 10th anniversary. It encouraged its employees to help wherever they could make a difference. Projects included helping get internet to Antarctica and sponsoring robotics and coding teams in local schools. When the invasion began the Foundation turned its resources to delivering food and supplies to hospitals and defenders.

They soon realized they could only do so much on their own, so they decided to open up the Foundation to donations from the outside. One measure of success, and level of trust in the MacPaw brand, was the amount of money donated by their fans and users: Over $700K at last count, which MacPaw matched with a $5 million donation.

The Foundation today focuses on reconnaissance tech such as walkie talkies and providing medicine and protective gear for the Ukrainian defenders. In fact, the famous photo of Ukrainians liberating Snake Island in June was taken with a drone provided by MacPaw.

And, in the end, Eugene said, those kinds of accomplishments kept them going. “We are actually helping people feel safer and more secure and a little less threatened.” And that was inspiration enough.

Lesson 8: No matter what, stay human.

In any crisis situation, helping and supporting each other helps everyone stay the same and gives us all meaning.

This is the story that Eugene Kalnyk, PR Specialist at MacPaw based in Kyiv, Ukraine, told to attendees at the 2022 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement. If it moves you the way it moved us, please consider sending a donation to the MacPaw Foundation. ∞

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Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.

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