How to effectively position a business in a war - Victoria Chernova

Victoria Chernova, Chief Growth Officer of Newsfront Communications agency, spoke about business communication strategies, new rules for positioning companies in the market, and building trust in a brand in a war.

How to effectively position a business in a war - Victoria Chernova

Oksana Korotich

16.09.2022 | 10:26

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Did your agency have a plan of action in case of a full-scale war?

We had two components of the preparation. The first concerned the emotional state of the team because indeed the tension at the beginning of active hostilities was quite high. They have already begun to talk about the introduction of martial law and make predictions regarding the date of the invasion.

We even had a call on February 22 or 23, during which we discussed what fears there are about this, and what to do, and reassured the team. The rhetoric from agency leadership and within the team was based on the fact that none of us knows the future and cannot foresee it, but we have a task to do what we do and be ready for anything.

We also prepared a lecture in advance, during which an invited expert answered all questions: from where to be in the house if you cannot find a shelter and ending with how to pack an emergency suitcase, what food and how much to take, what medicines must be in it, etc.

The second part of the training concerned client work specifically. We checked the system of work in general, if it suddenly happens that there is no Internet, there is no connection and we do not have access to the server. That is, already before February 24, we tried to keep all important documents offline so that we always had the opportunity to work with them. We worked out with our managers and directors of the scheme what we will do if we need to contact the client, but there is no connection or Internet.

Additionally, we had a very detailed list of the team, which included all contacts, home addresses, and even contacts of close people, if suddenly someone does not get in touch. We tried our best to make sure that in any case we had contacts and we kept in communication both with each other and with customers.

Can you tell us what happened to Newsfront Communications on February 24 and in the early days of the war?

For example, just like everyone else in Kyiv, I woke up from the explosions. The first thing we did was to talk to the top management and the founders of the agency about some basic things, for example, that no one goes to the office today. For such questions really were: “What to do next?”.

On the first day, we called them several times, tried to talk, to see who was where. We also wrote off all the time, just in the chat they even asked us to put plus signs in order to understand that everything was fine with our colleagues, that they were safe.

During the first week, we communicated a lot. We tried to keep in touch, especially with those who were left alone in the city, for example, and do not have the opportunity to go to friends or family. We tried to help everyone.

We also contacted clients and warned them that we were in touch in this mode, said that we were safe, and found out how our colleagues were.

How long after the start of the war did you manage to return to a stable job?

I would say that we returned to really stable work in the pre-war format in about a month, perhaps even a month and a half. But in general, the plan of what to do, and the calculations were ready in two weeks. Then we already knew what projects we were attracting, how much we conditionally lost, and what we had left.

The work as a whole did not stop, we still continued to work. But these were such chaotic requests from different sides. We controlled many processes manually, we had to make decisions on the go.

Did Newsfront Communications have to help team members relocate from active war zones? Or did your employees not need such assistance?

Our entire team is from Kyiv. In the early days, our colleagues were focused on making a decision: who stays, who goes on. There were colleagues who had already managed to leave for the west of Ukraine. We tried to stay in touch and helped each other if anyone needed it.

But in general, the decision to relocate, whether to stay or go, was made by everyone individually. I lived in Israel for the first three months, was abroad, and returned at the beginning of the summer.

Did you change your team with the onset of the war? Did you have to cut any positions or change the functions of some team members?

In general, we kept everything, as it was before. And this was the main task set by the founders of the agency, including me. Then we wanted to keep the team at least for a while, now we understand that we have the opportunity to leave everything as it was.

In the first three months, when we had a very unstable flow of work with clients, there was not a load for everyone. We then decided to involve part of the workers in two large groups, which we immediately created:

  • one was involved in new business and help with finding new clients;
  • second - helped with pro bono projects - at the beginning of the war, we tried to provide communication support to those who brought victory closer.

So, we decided that we would help with projects that needed it, and we had a whole team that worked with them.

Do you need new employees now? Maybe you are looking for specialists who have become more in demand in the current conditions?

In general, the number of people in a team is related to the number of customers and orders. The basis of our business is long-term projects that allow us to plan and give guarantees to our employees. Because it is a determining factor in hiring.

To hire someone new, we must be sure that we have enough work for this new person and we can attract them to projects. Now, long-term projects are much more difficult to find. Other businesses are also in an environment of uncertainty and it is also difficult for them to plan long-term budgets and promise anything to partners. Therefore, we are not currently actively looking for new colleagues.

However, we have an internship program. We often collaborate with interns and are even now considering them for some of the projects.

How did the war affect the number of customers and results of Newsfront Communications?

We have several long-term contracts that last for the fourth or fifth year, we are still cooperating with them, and some tasks have even been added.

It's hard to find new customers. We have to expand our customer base, and finding new customers on a long-term basis is now a much more complex process that takes more time than before.

We are provided with targeted, small projects, strategies, or short communication campaigns. Therefore, we are trying to focus on long-term stable projects that last from six months or more.

We have almost restored the number of requests to pre-war levels, they are the basis of attracting customers. A business needs to be ready and understand why it needs communications, which makes it more difficult to sell them proactively.

At the same time, we were able to expand the number of customer acquisition channels. Previously, these were mostly recommendations or we were contacted through the personal brand of our CEO Vladimir Degtyarev. Now, we have gone beyond our "bubble". We, among other things, are looking for open tenders ourselves, we attract any personal contacts that our colleagues have, and we use the personal brands of other colleagues. We also work with external events, for the first time we actively began to promote the agency itself, talking about what we do and how. Compared to the pre-war period, the number of communication channels with potential customers has increased several times.

Today, it is difficult to predict in advance what the financial indicator will be at the end of the year. But our forecasts are not as bad as they could be. We try to be restrained in this, but we are achieving the goal that we set for ourselves - to keep the team and give it the opportunity to work.

Have the needs of your customers changed since the full-blown invasion?

The main pool of clients we work with and the requests we receive are from the businesses least affected by a full-scale intrusion. These are IT companies and Web3 businesses related to the metaverse, cryptocurrencies, and other such things.

We also receive inquiries from charities, non-government organizations, and foundations whose primary concern is building trust and brand awareness. Because it all affects their campaigns. It is important for them to talk about their activities in order to raise funds to help their target audience.

These are now two such large-scale focuses in the requests that we receive.

Has the policy of building communication strategies and promoting business in Ukraine changed in general?

Now, a very important question is how to combine business-oriented communications with socially important communications. It is very important to be clear about our position and to translate it into everything we do. Support for Ukraine now includes donations to funds that help the army and with humanitarian needs, it is also support for people within the team, it is support for the image of Ukraine through cool cases when a business does not just continue to work but creates cool new things even in the conditions that prevailed.

Therefore, supporting Ukraine and maintaining its image in the international arena remain important communication aspects in working with clients.

Support for the army and any activity aimed at bringing Ukraine's victory closer is no longer some kind of outstanding event for business. It becomes a basic need that other market players, candidates, and consumers expect, so it's important to talk about it.

What should be an effective PR strategy for companies in the Ukrainian market to promote a business or brand in modern conditions, so as not to cause a negative reaction in society? Or, perhaps, businesses should generally abandon active promotion.

I will definitely say that it is always important to start with a goal. We always ask clients: “What do you need communications for?”. When you launch a campaign, you must clearly define the purpose of communication and, accordingly, understand for whom you are communicating, what you are communicating, and through what channels. If you have an awareness, and a well-defined strategy, you can constantly control yourself and stay consistent.

For example: “OK, if I go out with this message now and advertise my products or services in this way, does it help my goal?”. If the answer is “Yes”, then, of course, you should. If the answer is “No” and this is a so-called PR for the sake of PR, it is better to stop and find something more relevant and effective to achieve your goal.

Now, communications are becoming very multi-layered, and many sensitive issues are being added to which you need to be attentive.

What business promotion tools should companies avoid in order not to lose a good reputation in the market?

Initially, there are no bad tools. It's just that they are effective for different purposes, and this must be understood.

Let's take a look at situational memes, which are now very actively used. It would seem that these are jokes that may be inappropriate. But not when they are well-aimed and situational. Therefore, we see a lot of good examples of brands using memes.

The same story with the Swallow's Nest in Yalta. When ROZETKA, ATB, Nova Poshta, and Ukrposhta, the first few brands that managed to set the tone, started doing this, it looked very good.

How to effectively position a business in a war - Victoria Chernova

How to effectively position a business in a war - Victoria Chernova

Therefore, it is important here again to understand why you are doing this, and then it will be easier for you to evaluate the effectiveness of certain tools that you use.

It is very important, in my opinion, not to flirt with the theme of war, superheroism, and sensitive personal stories. It must be remembered that many people are losing loved ones at the front now, they have lost their homes, and businesses, and they were forced to move. It is important to care about the feelings of your target audience.

It is equally important to be sincere in your communications, to broadcast your position as it really is.

There must also be a balance between what you do and what you talk about. It should not be that you have not done anything yet, but have already managed to talk about it. That is, first we do, and after that, we talk about the results if they are really important and serve the communication goal that you have set for yourself.

Do members of the Newsfront Communications team take part in volunteer initiatives and help the army, or are you now focused solely on stabilizing the business?

I think these two things don't really interfere with each other. Our CEO of the company is now involved in the work at the headquarters of the Territorial Defense Forces, now he is not involved in the operational activities of the agency. We also have colleagues who constantly help the battalions or, together with their families, have organized a separate fund, the work of which is related to the training of the military.

In addition, of course, we all donate to funds and try to join the charitable initiatives to which we are invited.

We are also ready to support pro bono projects systematically. Now we support the initiative through communication, which provides Ukrainians with free psychological support. We help them with communication messages, strategy, and distribution of releases to build trust in them and generally influence the culture of taking care of their health.

What are your company's plans for the near future? Have you thought about how you will have to do business if the war drags on, or do you have optimistic plans for a quick end to the invasion?

We definitely don't have any idea that this will end quickly. As our CEO says: “This rain is for a long time.” In general, none of us can say in advance about the long-term consequences, including for the economy.

The first thing in our plans is to enter foreign markets. This is a long process that requires a lot of effort. In Europe, almost no one knows about us, the competition is very high. Therefore, we are now focusing on opportunities to study these markets, research them, and contact other agencies, marketing companies, and teams in these countries. We do this by involving our acquaintances and a network of professional contacts.

We use this period to determine the priority markets with which we want to work and actively launch this work next year. This will help to receive more orders from abroad and diversify our portfolio of services in case, for purely economic reasons, it will be much more difficult for Ukrainian businesses to work with communications.

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