This article is part of the Ukraine Special Edition, a collaboration between PRovoke Media and the Ukraine Communication Support Network that draws together authoritative international voices to explore the ongoing war through a specific PR and communications lens. More here.

Russia’s war on Ukraine may have shocked and surprised many across the world, but it comes to no surprise to those familiar with Ukraine’s people and history, and indeed, to those nations neighbouring Ukraine.

As with everyone in the world, Bulgaria was dismayed when the war evolved. When news flooded, questions on how Bulgaria would respond dominated social media conversations, specifically on how its deep historical ties with Russia, which stretches back centuries, would influence Bulgaria’s actions. For instance, one of the biggest national holidays – the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman empire’s five century slavery – is due to the victory of the Russian–Turkish liberation war. 

Thereby, conclusions of Bulgaria’s position were coming from all directions. There are, of course, many pro-Russians groups in the country that will continue to stand with the Kremlin. They believe Bulgaria today is what it is because of its connection with Russia. Yet, Bulgaria is also part of NATO and the European Union, which puts the country in a delicate position. Its newly formed government has had to contend with COVID-19 for two years, rising inflation, fight long-time corruption on a national level, prepare for the adoption of the euro, and now be mindful of its position during the war.

How would Bulgaria’s decisions and actions be perceived by Russia, the EU or NATO? Care for humanity should shape and drive decision making, but it’s challenging to please all sides when you are caught in the middle. This uncomfortable position creates fear and uncertainty - not only because of being a close neighbour.

Bulgaria continues to experience waves of incoming refugees. Some refugees have relatives in the country, others are looking for opportunities to build a new life, or some are just crossing the borders to ultimately reach Western Europe for better social help. Thus, NGO volunteers and businesses have acted quickly to support migration, initiate programmes, and to donate money and resources, whether it’s venturing to the border to lend a hand or opening their homes to give hope for the future.

Bulgaria’s journey has been challenging. Firstly, because of the non-readiness of the country's policies. Second, because of all criticism levied at the new government’s actions, and third, because of its dual connection to Russia and EU and NATO membership. Staying neutral shouldn’t be the priority for a good neighbour - it’s about staying human. During such devastating times when people’s life, destiny and future of children are at stake, being human must be at the core of everything.

From a communications perspective, it’s about being transparent and responding ethically and decisively as we would in any other crisis communication situation. For companies like ours, it was important to move quickly and make our offices and people readily available to support our Ukrainian colleagues and their families.

It’s the same reason communication professionals across the world gathered to create the Ukraine Communication Support Network to inspire and unite other professionals to help the people of Ukraine. Learn how to be part of the global communication support network here.

Iva Grigorova is director of PR Business at MSL, part of Publicis Groupe Bulgaria.

February 24th was a shocking moment for all of us working in the communications business in Poland. The morning of that day was, in a way, reminiscent of the morning 12 years ago, when on the 10th April, 2010 (the presidential plane catastrophe in Smolensk), we woke up from a calm sleep to have our world literally turned upside down after glancing at our phones. Shock, disbelief, sadness and anger. These emotions once again exploded in our heads, making it impossible to focus on any of the tasks we had to perform for our clients in that first hour.

Then, plunged into sadness and disbelief, we called our family members to share our emotions and then convened crisis committees of the companies we worked for to agree on a plan of action for the coming days.

This time our first thoughts were different: who of our Ukrainian friends could have been affected? Are they safe? Are the family members of our Ukrainian friends and colleagues from work, from the pub I go to most often, from school gatherings where we meet to talk about our children, safe? I managed to call them. They are there, they are alive, they are well. A momentary relief and immediately back to work, but different, this time to act on how we can help.

This was a common experience for both us and our clients. We all had our professional colleagues there who needed help and support. The patterns of action were very different, but one thing was common - in that first period since the war broke out, both we and our clients were focused solely on Ukraine. Marketing campaigns, price promotions, events... stood still.

For many of us, it was the most important PR campaign of our lives - working to provide our Ukrainian friends with a shelter that would serve like a second home for them. The Polish and foreign media wrote at the time about the great wave of refugees coming to Poland, which we should fear. But for us, they were never refugees, but our brothers and sisters from Ukraine.

This was the most important PR task for everyone, not only at work but also on the street, on public transport, and in the checkout line at the grocery shop. Because PR is not just about communications. PR is much more, and that ‘more’ is relationships. Relationships that are inclusive, sensitive, and lasting. The kind that has the power to survive wars and remain forever.

Grzegorz Szczepanski is CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

This article is part of the Ukraine Special Edition, a collaboration between PRovoke Media and the Ukraine Communication Support Network that draws together authoritative international voices to explore the ongoing war through a specific PR and communications lens. More here.

The Ukraine Communication Support Network (UCSN) is an international organisation of PR associations, agencies and advisors committed to helping the people of Ukraine through the power of strategic communications. To stay up to date with UCSN activities globally and to learn what’s happening in your country, please subscribe to the international newsletter.