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EU communication strategy in Ukraine should bypass distrusted politicians

Television is by far the most dominant medium in Ukraine, and the EU should take note when trying to get its message across, writes Adriana Skorupska.

A lack of public information about the European Union, combined with longstanding Russian propaganda, resulted not only in the spread of disinformation about the Union but also provoked anti-EU and anti-western Ukrainian feelings.

Events that occurred after Euromaidan, on the other hand, contributed to an increase in support for the EU, which in late April was 52.4%.

But opinion remains divided on whether is it better to strive for integration with the EU, or to continue within the framework of the Eurasian Union. In the western part of the country, nearly 90% of Ukrainians favour integration with the EU, in the centre, support is around two-thirds, while in the south it is only close to 30%. The east is least enthusiastic about Europe. There, only one in four people would like to see Ukraine become part of the EU, while nearly 38% support the Eurasian Union.

The media plays a particularly important role in disseminating information, and studies show that television is the main source of news for 95% of Ukrainians. In the west of the country, the Ukrainian-speaking majority watches Ukrainian TV and stations from neighbouring countries, including Poland. Further to the east, the population becomes progressively Russian-speaking, and Russian television dominates. Moreover, almost all stations there are controlled by the elite, who favour pro-Russian separatists. However, even in the past, well-funded and attractive Russian TV, with colourful programmes showing an image of a wealthy Russia, attracted more viewers than Ukrainian TV.

The EU delegation in Kiev plays a special role in informing Ukrainians about the EU. The prospect of signing an Association Agreement enhanced the promotion of mutual relations. In the spring of 2013, the delegation announced competitions for partners in a wider information campaign, and joint activities with those selected were planned for 12 months, starting in autumn 2013. The delegation set aside about €1 million every year to promote the EU.

The promotional campaign was designed in the first half of 2013, in a different political environment, when there was much debate about whether Ukraine would sign an Association Agreement and amid apparent pressure from Russia. However, there was no awareness of any separatist movements, or of the fact that society was so strongly polarised. The decision not to sign the agreement, and all subsequent events throughout Ukraine, should prompt a re-evaluation of the content and methods of communication.

Informing the public about the EU is a very difficult process, even in Member States. Issues related to the functioning of the EU, the EU institutions and the decision-making process are complex, so it is most important to commit to building a long-term information strategy. Now, once again, the prospect of an Association Agreement and EU-backed reforms should take precedence.

The important thing is to match the message with specific recipients. This applies to both the content and form of the message, and to the sender. Public opinion studies should be helpful here. TV is still a very important medium for most people, especially the elderly, but internet, and especially social media, should be used in order to reach out to younger generations.

In the case of Ukraine, the message needs to be tailored according to the region. In central Ukraine and in the west, the message may be more about the need for reform and the European Union, while in the east, the role of the EU as a stabilising influence  conducive to the integrity of the country should be emphasised. The economy should be an important element of the campaign, and the improving situation of the Central European and Baltic States, backed by specific data such as GDP growth, would be an important and persuasive argument for Ukrainians from all over the country. The message should show the history of difficult reforms, together with the positive and negative consequences of EU membership. It should be emphasised that the EU can now help with changes that, although not bringing immediate improvement, are crucial in the long-term perspective – a perspective according to which Russia would  not be seen as the enemy. Highlighting the long-term economic benefits is also important as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, which, using data from EU Member States, has convinced Ukrainians that the economic situation in these countries deteriorated after the introduction of reforms.

It is difficult to organise the debate and encourage people to participate in informative and educational events, when they fear for the integrity of their country and for their personal safety. However, the assumption is that the present government will sign the trade elements of the Association Agreement, with a view to implementing reforms with the help of the EU as soon as possible. It is therefore a very good moment for an information campaign.

Yet persuading Ukrainians to take a positive view of the EU is not a task that can be undertaken only from outside. The Ukrainian government should send a clear message and organise specific information campaigns. In the campaigns carried out in other countries in the pre-accession period, local leaders, individuals and celebrities played an important role. Ukrainians do not trust politicians. A respected or popular person is more credible than an “official” when talking about the positive, though distant, effects of necessary reforms. In the referendum campaigns in Poland and Croatia, famous actors argued for European integration.

Adriana Skorupska is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

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