Crisis Communication Lessons from Ukraine's Unfolding Political Drama
Protests are continuing on the streets of Ukraine's capital, Kiev, as hundreds of thousands of citizens from across the country have joined forces to call for the immediate resignation of the country's president, Victor Yanukovich. Political crisis is nothing new to the country that saw similar demonstrations during the Orange revolution of 2004 to 2005, though Yanukovich is currently dismissive of the protestors. CNN reports the President did not acknowledge the demonstrators' frustration over his abrupt decision to stop seeking integration with the European Union, instead believing the protestors were pawns of his political opponents such as the imprisoned Ex-Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Though I am now in Moscow, I am still quite worried about what's going on at home.
The crowds are chanting "revolution," and insist they won't stop until Ukraine undergoes a new presidential election. Dozens of individuals, including journalists, have been injured thus far in stand-offs between police and protestors. The situation isn't easy, and it's unlikely a resolution will be reached in the immediate future. While few organizations will ever face issues of a similar scale, there are valuable lessons in appropriate crisis communications to be gleaned from the ongoing political drama:
1. Present a Centralized Voice
The history between current president Yanukovich and former Prime Minister Tymoshenko is particularly long and complex. The charismatic, highly-educated Tymoshenko served as the golden-braided mascot of the Orange Revolution. Conflicts between Tymoshenko and Yankukovich lead to her being fired from her Prime Minister Role in 2007, though she was re-appointed in 2010.
Currently, Tymoshenko is serving 7 years in prison over charges for an alleged abuse of office. However, she still maintains a legion of strong support - particularly in the West - and passionately urged Ukrainians to demonstrate in the streets from her cell on Saturday. While Yanukovich may be the President, Tymoshenko leads the hearts of many Ukrainian nationals.
Regardless of your political affiliations, there's apparent mixed messaging influencing the situation which is confusing both participants and bystanders worldwide. If your company ever finds yourselves in a deep crisis, it's critical to present a single voice and story to the public to avoid similar mass confusion.
2. Never Understate the Situation
In one of the gravest mistakes made during the protests to date, Yanukovich openly dismissed the protestors' calls for revolution, while Russian President Vladimir Putin called them "a pogrom." Putin's terminology is certainly charged, and undoubtedly more so among Ukrainian citizens. While organizations rarely face crises of a significant scale, common sense dictates that you should never dismiss a client's complaints or become defensive when your position is challenged. Always acknowledge the issue, and try to be sympathetic towards the individuals affected.
3. Explain Decisions
While even political experts are struggling to unravel just how much of the Ukrainian protests are influenced by Yanukovich's decision against signing the European Trade Deal and how much is the product of general political malaise, it's abundantly clear that the President's recent behavior hasn't helped the situation. EU integration talks have been on the table for a full year, and no statements were released about the sudden choice to avoid signing which satisfied citizens.
Could a well-worded political statement about exactly why Yanukovich decided against EU integration have allowed Ukraine to avoid their current state of disaster? It's unclear, but it seems certainly possible. When it comes to crisis communications, some effort at the front end can make all the difference in the world.
Having a crisis communications plan in place is crucial. While issues of any size occur at organizations, from breaches in data security to small customer service problems, adopting the basics of effective crisis communications can allow companies to avoid the escalation that's currently ongoing in Kiev.
Follow Sasha Zinevych on Twitter