Everybody looks on Ukraine like it’s some sort of 25-year-old new boy - Martin Nunn

Bohdan Nahaylo interviews communications expert Martin Nunn on how Ukrainian polititians and bureaucrats try to improve their image — and the perception of Ukraine — at home and abroad

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo


Martin Nunn

Everybody looks on Ukraine like it’s some sort of 25-year-old new boy - Martin Nunn

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Today you can listen to our feature interview, which is Martin Nunn speaking to Bohdan Nahaylo about Making Ukraine’s Image. Does Ukraine portray itself as something of a victim? But what about the new generation of Ukrainians, who organized Ukraine House at Davos? It’s all in how you communicate, explains Martin Nunn.

FEATURE INTERVIEW: Bohdan Nahaylo interviews Communications Expert Martin Nunn

Nahaylo: I am very pleased to welcome to the latest edition of Ukraine Calling Martin Nunn, a British specialist on international communications and public relations who has been in Ukraine for quite some time and who has helped governments, big businesses as well as civil society.  At various stages, he has also promoted political education and raising political awareness.  Martin, welcome to the program! 

Nunn: Thank you! It’s great to be here.

Nahaylo: Let’s start with the obvious question. What brought you to Ukraine? How long have you been here?

Nunn: I started to work in Russia in 1986 and was asked to help out with a mass privatization program there. And then in 1993, USAID felt that I had not done such a bad job there and I was asked to work on public education in Ukraine. One of the things I found was the international attitude to Ukraine even in those days was totally different from that of Russia. In the Russian environment privatization was really a system to kill off the communist financial model. In Ukraine it was very different. It was: “how do we help the people to build a new society?” It really made me interested in Ukraine at that time, because when I came here, 25 years ago, you would go into a shop, there was one kind of cheese, one kind of butter.  They would chop you off a piece of meat they wanted to sell you. Six Ladas in a row was a traffic jam.

Nahaylo: And that cheese was called Rosiyskiy syr…(Russian cheese)!

Nunn: Yes, absolutely. And it wasn’t very good.

Nahaylo: Or Moskovska kovbasa (Moscow sausage). Which leads us to the issue of branding. In the Soviet times all the good stuff was purposefully identified with Moscow and Russia. Ukraine clearly had a problem of reestablishing, or reaffirming, or reinventing its own identity. You have been very instrumental in helping the players here:  government, civil society, on different levels, and particularly big business. What are the key changes that you have seen over the last quarter of a century?

Nunn: I think the key change is a psychological change that happened within the people. So many people here realized that they can actually make products and build brands. And they learned how to market them and how to present them. I think business has accelerated far faster in this way than government and politics. Political communication is still unfortunately locked into the very old spiral. They still believe its government’s job to tell people what they should know. Unfortunately, the Internet doesn’t allow that anymore and people decide what they want to understand and what they want to learn. This has changed the whole communications dynamic for the way political and business communications work.

Nahaylo: It’s interesting that after the Revolution of Dignity, we have a President who is a businessman and is surrounded by business types. Yet, it seems to me, they are failing in communicating with their own people. They are quite eloquent and quite successful when they communicate to external TV and radio stations, and yet they do not seem to want to pass on the key messages to, or engage in a dialogue with, society.

Nunn: I think this is a dilemma, that there are two types of communicators within the government. There is an old school, that does it in the old way, and there are new people who want to do it in a modern way. At the moment we are in the transitional stage. 

Nahaylo: Is this a generational thing?

Nunn: Yes. Totally. There are some people within a higher apparatus of communication within the government who were trained in Moscow, in the Russian system of doing things. They perhaps don’t want to change that quickly. The British government has funded planning and communications trainings and communication specialists over the last 3-4 years, somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.5 million pounds, into rebuilding communications understanding. Slowly you start to see the results.

Nahaylo: Is it also because, as you said, the Internet, but also that more and more young people – the more fortunate ones- are able to study abroad and to see how things are done differently in other countries. Perhaps, if they return, they come back with different expectations and different benchmarks.

Nunn: I think they do return But they do no return physically. They return electronically.

Nahaylo: That’s a good point!

Nunn: They feed that information into the system. They understand the new dynamic. It’s one of the major things that has changed in the way we communicate today. In the past we had newspapers and television. And television, particularly in this part of the world, was state controlled, and they told people what they wanted them to know. Since independence, Ukrainians have had an access to the international media and international experience. Therefore, nowadays they have the ability to be able to challenge those preset positions. And consequently, not just in politics but in communications in general, we have moved away from: “This is what I want to say and I want you to hear this” to “What do you actually want to hear from us?” It’s much more about monitoring the pulse of what is going on with a product, or a society, to understand the dynamics of the public discussion about what is going on. You can input your messages, your ideas, into a framework where people want to listen.

I can give you an example of this. I worked with Prime Minister [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk for a while, and he had a problem in that there was a lot of awful negative media paid for and generated about him.  He had no way of fighting it. We sat down and looked at the opportunities that were available. One of those, was that the government has a right to publish public information. We therefore created a TV program called “10 Minutes with the Prime Minister,” where the Prime Minister sat down and spoke to the camera for 10 minutes. Without a script and notes, he talked about the specifics of the subject. Nobody had ever done it that way before. Everything was pre-recorded or pre-set with scripts that had gone through 25 different people to make sure it was politically correct.  This was straight off the cuff. The result was that, with the first few issues, the audience grew from virtually nothing to 1.5 million. Eventually, it rose to over 7 million households. Why? Because it was the first time a politician had actually talked to people as if they were real people. The president carried on working in a different way, and his audience was 700-800,000. 

Nahaylo: Martin I want to say, as a former journalist, former Director of Radio Liberty, and former writer in Britain, as someone who took the first unscripted interview with a Soviet leader, with Leonid Kravchuk in 1990 under a portrait of Lenin, that I know the issues. One of the recommendations I have given to people within the Presidential Administration informally is: why doesn’t the President have the kind of fireside chats [addressing the population directly and informally] that some American presidents used to have? Do something very similar to what you did with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk! And yet, if anything, there has been less communication from the President in the last year than in the first two years.

Matin Nunn and Bohdan Nahaylo in Hromadske Radio's studio in Kyiv Hromadske Radio

Nunn: I agree with you. I think that the problem is this – the generational advisors. In the past the President would never sit down and talk to the people. It’s a very new idea. In America it’s been going on since the end of the Second World War. In Britain Margaret Thatcher executed it brilliantly well. In Ukraine, there is still this idea that the President is some leader figure who is a God-like character and it is beneath him to talk to the people.

Nahaylo: And yet it is different in the Baltic States. Toomas Ilves is a good friend of mine, from our days at Radio Liberty, and he became president for two terms. Very direct and very open, perhaps too open sometimes!

Nunn: Again, it’s a generational issue. I believe that if the President were to sit down and have a regular talk show where he talked to the people, not as a president, but as a human being, as a father, as a concerned businessman, who speaks from his own experience, from his own country’s, and understands what people are really feeling, then his ratings would rise dramatically! He would be seen to be human.

Nahaylo: And he could share some of the problems he faces and perhaps have people understand why he makes the decisions he does, or appoints the people he does. Anyway moving on, let’s talk about how Ukraine can improve its public image, and does it need to. I’ve noted, probably you have too, that, within the last two-three months, that image has been plummeting given some of the reluctance to follow through with combatting corruption, establishing an anti-corruption court, moving against some of the civil activists, etc. We seem to have reached a stage where we have problems with quite a few of the neighbors for various reasons, language, history, and we have problems with Brussels with the IMF in terms of credibility. What needs to be done?

Nunn: Well, first of all, I would separate the image of the country and the image of the politicians. I believe it is the politicians whose image is going down I don’t believe it is the image of the country that is going down. I think that its’s a fact Ukrainian business is now communicating, is now putting out the message and talking. In Davos they had the Ukraine House, which was talking about all sorts of innovation and technology and really impressing people! One of the funny stories I had there was that one of the biggest number of visitors they had was from the Russia House on the other side of the street! They wanted to find out how many Russians were there, so they played the Ukrainian national anthem and they watched them walk out. I think there is a new dynamism going on. I think that dynamism is not being matched by a political communications dynamism.

Nahaylo: I think there are two issues there I’d like to just touch upon and hear your comments about. On the one hand, Ukraine come across as this state which constantly has its hand outstretched to donors saying “bail us out,” “we have a war going on,” etc. And on the other, because of the slow pace of reform and lack of transparency, there is what we used to call back in the UN, “compassion fatigue” for Ukraine.

Nunn: Absolutely.

Nahaylo: Ukraine presents itself as a victim, it is a victim, but it cannot simply play on that; it has to deliver in other areas.

Nunn: And this is one of the big dilemmas of the whole communications process. In the past, the communications system has been on one level. It’s: “poor Ukraine, we’re a new country, we’re at war, help us.” On the other side, there is a thousand-year old country, which is one of the founding fathers of Europe, that has one of the oldest societies in Europe. I mean, I come from Great Britain and Ukraine is actually older than Great Britain in terms of its political and social development. So this is a country that is part of the structure of Europe, but we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that Pylyp Orlyk wrote a constitution when he did [early 18th century], that Yaroslav the Wise wrote the first structured law in Europe…

Nahaylo: At about the time of the Domesday Book.

Nunn: Exactly.

Nahaylo: Or that Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was built when Westminster Abbey was built.

Nunn: Exactly! We don’t talk about this. It’s a secret. Everybody looks on Ukraine like it’s some sort of 25-year-old new boy who is misbehaving, and it’s not. And that’s part of the dilemma, that we have this mono approach to communication. Now, one of the things that we’ve been doing is looking at how we report the business news, because business news is simply not reported. I had a senior member of the education establishment say to me: “we do not teach out students about business news because business news is advertising.” He was very much of the old order. But that’s part of the problem. Unless we’re actually getting out the dynamics of what’s going on… I’ll give you an example: General Electric recently signed a contract with the government worth a billion dollars, and it’s a secret. Nobody knows about it! Why don’t they know about it? Because the media system itself doesn’t actually report what is going on in the most dynamic aspects of the country.

Nahaylo: Martin, you know a few minutes back you said the internet has really reshaped our approach to the way we deal with information, communication, etc.  But, if anything, perhaps, given also the oligarchic hold over many of the pocket newspapers and TV channels that exist here, that this abundance of information, unchecked, coming from all over the place, like on Facebook… has it led to clarity and order, or to even more confusion and partisanship?

Nunn: I think it’s led to a lot of confusion, and this is another dilemma for the communications industry here. There is a belief in the communications infrastructure here that communication is all about big events. Let’s make a big bang. Well in my business we call that ‘fireworks communications.’ It goes off with a bang, everybody goes, ‘Oooh! Ahhh!’ and it’s immediately forgotten. Good communication is like the Chinese water torture. Its drip, drip, drip, drip, every single day. And in reporting the news, whether it’s about business, or politics, in a way that you are feeding that information. Not in great long articles of 2,000 or 5,000 words. But in 100 word bites. Or 50 word bites. Or tweets. Feeding that information into the system, on a regular basis, eventually you build up a level of confidence in the listeners which counteracts the propaganda. Propaganda can only work in a vacuum. If there’s no information, propaganda is king. If you have a drip fed system, which is constantly putting out news, constantly putting out new ideas, constantly reporting on the good things in Ukraine, then, over a very short period of time, people build up their own image of what the country is.

I don’t believe it’s difficult to fight the current image at all. I think it’s just a case of sitting down and having the reporting mechanisms, journalists trained in the right way to report the news in the right way. And, frankly, for some of the oligarchs to, let’s say, face up to their moral duties to the people of this country, and actually have a media system that actually reports the news. And not the politics.

Nahaylo: And not just glorify them, whitewash them.

Nunn: Yes, exactly.

Nahaylo: Okey, let’s draw a few conclusions. What would your recommendations be to somebody listening to this programme, both as an individual with a blog, active on Facebook, and, shall we say, a senior politician, who wants to act not just in his own interest but for the public good?

Nunn: I would address senior politicians first. Understand that in this day and age it isn’t what you want to say, it’s what they want to hear. So you have to craft your message in a way that makes it plausible and believable.

Nahaylo: Doesn’t that smack of populism?

Nunn: No. People aren’t stupid. Least of all in this country, they are a highly intelligent people. It’s not a case of giving out a populist message. People don’t actually want a populist message. They want a nice warm feeling in their tummy, that person is actually going to look out after their interests. And then the politicians have to deliver against that. And communicate the difficulties, the problems in the deliveries. And why people should have confidence in them.

From an individual point of view I would say to people, first of all, read as many news sources as you can, but understand who is behind the newspapers. So if you’re reading a newspaper that’s owned by Mr. Kolomoisky [oligarch, owner of Media 1+1 Group], it’s going to have a very distinct opinion.

Nahaylo: Or Mr. Akhmetov [oligarch, owner of System Capital Management, who supported former President Victor Yanukovych].

Nunn: Or Mr. Akhmetov.

Nahaylo: Or even the President.

Nunn: Exactly. So you’ve got to read all of them to get the right message. And it’s not just a Ukrainian phenomenon. It’s the same in any country. If you live in Great Britain, and you only read the Sunday or the Daily Mirror, you’re going to have a very distorted view of the world.

Nahaylo: But in Britain, with its traditions, you know where newspapers stand. The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent. You know, really, what you can expect. But all of these newspapers at least try, even though they have their own particular bias or pitch, to act in the name of the common good, the public good. Which is something missing here.

Nunn: Absolutely. But it’s missing because the owners, who control the editors, determine what is being said, how it is being said, what the emphasis is going to be. Going back to my experience with Mr. Yatseniuk: he had something like 15,000 negative articles published in the press. Every one of those was paid for. That is impossible in the West.

I have a lovely story, if we’ve got time. A few years ago, a group of people from a Ministry went to see The Financial Times. And they said, ‘could we have a double page article on Ukraine?’ And they said, ‘certainly, no problem at all.’ And they said, ‘can you talk about this and this?’ And they said, ‘yes, no problem at all.’ And then they said, ‘can we not have the word advertising at the top?’ And they said, ‘no, we don’t do that.’ And then they said, ‘well, how much would it cost?’ And they said, ‘well, if you want it without that banner on the top, it’s going to cost you five million dollars a page.’ And they said, ‘that’s outrageous!’ The answer was, ‘so is your request.’

Nahaylo: Martin, you wear various hats. You’re involved in a business publication. You’re chief of a company. In two words, tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Nunn: I’ve lived in Ukraine out of choice for 25 years. I have a PR company. We’ve just set up our own publishing company to do exactly what we’ve said on the business side. I’ve also been President of the Kyiv Lion’s Club for quite a few years. We do a lot of charitable work. And I believe that if you’re a guest in anybody’s country, even if you’ve been a guest for 25 years, it’s your duty to contribute as much as you possibly can, whether by experience, or financially. You have to give something.

Nahaylo: It seems you’ve given a lot, and spoken like a true British gentleman. I thank you very much for agreeing on short notice to take part in our programme.

Nunn: My pleasure.

Nahaylo: You’ve been listening to Martin Nunn, a leading expert in international communications and public relations based in Kyiv. Thank you!


There are two musicians in L’viv called Pavlo Pihura and Vitalii Sychak. They formed a band called The Oscar Wild, and recently released a song called Земля, which means Earth. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol1Pdy6R2qI


Next week Bohdan Nahaylo will be hosting the show and we’ll be back with more conversation with people who make things happen in Ukraine, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, and Larysa Iarovenko. Music by Andriy Kulykov. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.