When did you first come to Ukraine and what brought you here?
I first came to Ukraine on 28 August 1993 at the request of the US government to help set up public education programme in market reform. When I got here I was working with Price Waterhouse. They asked us to come up with a plan. We went away and came back with three proposals: one at $900,000, one at $1.3m and one at $2.4m. Heading off to Washington we showed them the proposal and they said, “Go do it.” We asked, “Which one?” They said, “The $2.4m one.” So we ended up with a huge project, with about 75 people working for us, and it included newspapers, TV stations, radio stations. It was designed to educate people on what a market economy is and how it works.
What were your first impressions when you arrived all those years ago?
I’d been in Russia and the Soviet UNI0N for a long time before then. I’d been from to Minsk to Magadan, from Archangel to Ashkabad and everywhere in between, so when I came here I thought it was just going to be another post-Soviet city. After a while I realised Ukrainians are not Russians and Russians are not Ukrainians. Russians at that time were a bit like the British in the 1950’s. They’d lost their empire and they were upset about it. They were suffering from post-imperial depression, whereas Ukraine was actually suffering from post-independence realisation. They knew they had this country, but didn’t know what the hell to do with it. It was quite funny actually. Some of the legislation that was passed in the early days was just farcical. They didn’t take any notice of international laws or international commitments – they just passed laws because they thought they were nice.
How do Ukrainians differ from Russians?
Russians, particularly Moscow-based Russians, tend to have a glorified opinion of their own superiority. Unfortunately when you look at the state of Russia today, and the state of modern democracies, you can see they’re very much not like that. What’s happened is that over time that arrogance has turned into an inferiority complex. They know they’re not that good. You only have to look at the number of Russians who have left the country to understand that. Ukrainians, more so than Russians, live in hope. They are much more grounded, and have a much more positive outlook on life.
How did you come about forming your PR company after the government-funded programme came to end?
In ’94 I was in a bar, and there were two very drunken expats there, whom I went to chat with (because I was equally inebriated). It turns out that they were the marketing directors of Procter & Gamble and RJ Reynolds Tobacco. They both said they needed PR. I told them what I was doing with the US government. They told me to go and set up my own company and that I could handle their PR. So I did. It went from a start-up to a $1million turnover over night. It was incredible. We did all the work for RJ Reynolds Tobacco and about 60% of the work for P&G for the next few years. That’s how it started. We were providing western-standard PR services to international companies.
As with most things commercial, PR is very new to the country. How has it developed?
Well, in the old days everybody thought they could be a PR person. They didn’t realise it was a serious profession, requiring qualifications. In the old days if you were the son or daughter or girlfriend of the boss you probably got the PR job. Although you still see a lot of that, the profession here is now a lot more organised. One of the first things we did after we started was to get together with some other firms and set up the Ukraine Public Relations Association, in order to start to form the basis of an industry. The next thing we did was to ask the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in London if we could set up their training schemes in Ukraine, and in fact Ukraine was the first country in the world outside the UK to have the CIPR qualification. It’s been running 6-7 years now and we’ve trained over 200 people to full international standards. That’s changed the industry dramatically.
There are a lot of people who think advertising, and the placement of advertising is the essence of PR. How does real PR differ?
Our job is to provide journalists with news that is of value to their readers and is of value to our clients. For example, we once saw an article for P&G by one of our competitors, and it had 11 mentions of the brand in it. So people know that of course it was paid for. There’s no way anyone would think otherwise. It’s far better to have an article about an event, with the photograph showing obvious branding for your client. It’s a subtle process. Today, advertising is very much‘in your face. PR is long-term. What we do is take certain key words or key messages that are relevant to our client and over time we engineer information so the picture you see in your mind when you see that brand epitomises those key messages and descriptors.
So it’s about creating news for your clients, for the right type of publications?
Yes. They always say the best journalists come from PR, and the best PR people come from journalism, because they understand what is newsworthy and how it should be put across. The hardest job I have here with new members of staff is training them how to write a press release because you have to write it in such a way that allows a journalist to write something that is interesting for their readers. If it’s just one big advert then the client’s not going to read it. It doesn’t matter how many mentions of the brand it’s got in there: if the client doesn’t read it, you may as well not have said it. The objective is to get the client to read it, and within that, deliver the right messages. So again, it’s a subtle process, it’s a long-term process, but it works.
You’re involved in a democracy foundation. Tell us something about that.
In about December 2008 I was doing some work with the National Security Council, helping them with English-language report presentation. At the time myself and a senior member of the Council (Viktor) realised the only way Ukraine was going to change was if there was a method of helping people learn what a democracy is and how it works. So we set off on this glorified idea of building a foundation. We came up with the name People First, because it seemed relevant in Ukraine. The idea was to hold a series of national referenda to find out what people actually want Ukrainian society to look like. If you look back over history, it has always been the people at the top telling the people at the bottom what is good for them. The internet changed all that. The people at the bottom are now telling the people at the top what they want, and it’s created a whole revolution in political thinking. It gives people the chance to inform the government on how they think their country should work.
One of the things we poke fun at in What’s On is the stupid things the government does. What would you say to the government about their PR?
One of the biggest problems the government has is they don’t have PR advisors. The PR people in government have done more damage to the image of the President than anyone else. There’s a supreme arrogance in the way they work, and it’s probably been one of the most deplorable cases of non-PR I’ve ever experienced. They are absolutely useless. I am no fan of this government, but if you look, they are delivering quite a lot. But who knows about it? No-one. It’s the best kept secret on the planet. They’ve probably built more roads, more hospitals and more schools than all the previous governments of Ukraine put together. They’re investing in infrastructure, in the same way the Americans and the British and the Germans are doing. They’re creating jobs and they’re creating wealth. Ukraine may be paying more per kilometre than most countries, because there’s corruption everywhere, but they’re delivering. Far more than Mrs Tymoshenko ever did.
What are your hopes for the future of the country?
One of the sad parts about Ukraine is that Ukrainians are still waiting for somebody to come along and save them. You see this in all sorts of ways. Ukrainians have got this wonderful culture, this great sense of national identify and this massive land mass, but they’ve never actually built a nation, because there’s no common ideal, no sense of community. Consequently you see that monetarism and wealth-generation has taken over everything. Society has been allowed to implode at the expense of materialism. You see the results everywhere. For example, the roads are in a terrible state, but instead of fixing them people buy bigger jeeps. If you go into the tower blocks, the apartments themselves are beautiful, but the communal areas are in a terrible state. It’s this crazy mentality. You have people wearing very expensive clothes, and very expensive shoes, with very expensive cars, walking through some of the worst states of decay I’ve ever seen, into these mini-palaces. Nobody’s doing anything about the gap in between because nobody thinks it’s their responsibility. Until people realise it is their responsibility, nothing will change. The only people going to save the country is the people themselves. The problem at the moment is that people are far too individualistic. It’s me, me, me and to hell with everyone else. It’s very short-sighted.
You’ve obviously lived in Kyiv for many years now. What do you like to do for fun?
I go sailing on the Kyiv Sea. I’ve been sailing all my life, and it’s one of the first things I did when I first came to Kyiv. I’ve been sailing on the Dnipro for God knows how many years. I’m now on my third boat here, and I have an 8m racing boat which is fabulous. If you really want to de-stress and get away, take a boat out on the Kyiv Sea and just lose yourself in the middle of it. Sometimes you can be up there and there is nobody else on the water. It’s 45km long and 50km wide and it’s probably the best sailing water in Europe.