She's got it 13:27 19 Oct 2023

"Wars start with communications, but they also end with them": a Ukrainian communications specialist helps domestic NGOs speak to the world from abroad

Communication expert Maryna Govorukhina started working with non-governmental organizations over ten years ago. During this time, she was able to help more than a hundred NGOs. Maryna Govorukhina herself told Rubryka why activists often underestimate the importance of communications, how to establish a dialogue with their audience, and about the projects that appeared after the full-scale invasion.

What is the problem?
War, communications, and the word that came first

Before the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, Maryna Govorukhina lived in Kyiv and worked as a freelance communicator. However, the war forced Govorukhina, like millions of others, to leave home. For several days from February 24, 2022, she sat in a shelter with her cat Hermes but quickly realized she could do more for Ukraine abroad.

"I constantly had to rush between the apartment and the shelter with the cat in my arms. I was terrified and felt a panic attack coming. I understood that I had to go because I am absolutely dysfunctional in such conditions," says Govorukhina.

Марина Говорухіна

Maryna Govorukhina. Photo from the network

At first, Govorukhina stopped in Lviv, but the air raid alerts got her there too. The panic continued, so she boarded the first train to Poland, and then a friend invited her to Berlin, where Govorukhina has been living for over a year and a half.

"Berlin is the second Kyiv. Ukrainian can often be heard on its streets. The society is very active here," says Govorukhina.

She interacts with this kind of society today. The non-governmental organization where she works, Common Sense Communications, helps Ukrainian activists with communication.

"Even in religious books, they say: 'In the beginning was the word.' But for some reason, when non-governmental organizations start working, they forget about it," says Govorukhina.

NGOs should build strategic communications, she adds. One post a month does not solve this task. A common practice is reporting posts on pages on social networks. "Here we have done something good." But that's not really what works — for the NGO to gain more support, become more stable, have more volunteers, and more trust from people, donors, and businesses, it must communicate. "Wars start with communications, but they also end with them," says Govorukhina.

Thus, aid to activists grew into a separate non-governmental organization, which, thanks to donor funds, continues to help Ukrainian activists. Useful tips and mechanisms for working with the audience are published on the page, and the Common Sense Communications team individually advises NGOs that contact it.

Марина Говорухіна

Maryna Govorukhina during one of the trainings for NGOs. Photo from the network

What is the solution?
The beginning of the journey

Govorukhina found herself in communications 15 years ago: she was invited to work as a journalist at the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights. However, the communications manager position turned out to be vacant, and Govorukhina liked it.

"Back then, I didn't know the difference between journalism and PR. To understand it, I studied a lot because, in reality, a PR specialist has slightly different tasks for a client than a journalist," Govorukhina told Rubryka. "I invested in understanding how to better help NGOs. Then, gradually, it became my life's work. I don't get tired of doing it, and it's the most interesting thing that could happen to me," Govorukhina shares.

Марина Говорухіна

Maryna Govorukhina at one of the work events a few years ago. Photo from the network

For eight years, she worked in the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights, but then she realized that she wanted to expand her field of activity and went freelance to be able to take on more projects.

"I specialized in helping non-governmental organizations create a communication strategy and branding, and that's what I'm working with now," Govorukhina explains.

How does it work?

"I have been working in the NGO environment for a long time, so the activists, in principle, know that I help develop a communication strategy. They usually contact me themselves. First, I conduct an audit of what the organization already has, how it is presented on the market, how it currently communicates, what problems I see," says Govorukhina.

Then, the specialist conducts a questionnaire for the employees of the NGO. In particular, it asks what would happen if the non-governmental organization disappeared. Then, employees can think about their own value and the importance of their work.

"After that, we hold a strategic session. We often close all issues in one day and finalize the strategy document. We need answers to the following questions: 'Where are you now?' 'What are your preferences, and what are the disadvantages?' It is important to understand what place the NGO occupies in the market today. We also need a point of reference — a point from which we start to follow everything," says Govorukhina.

The specialist and the organization set real, achievable communication goals. Emphasis must be placed on the fact that what has been achieved could be measured. The expert says that activists are often dispersed due to many work tasks.

"A priority audience needs to be worked with so that the organization and employees don't burn out. Of course, they want to help everyone, so activists grab many tasks, but then comes the feeling: 'I'm not doing enough,'" the specialist explains.

Марина Говорухіна

Maryna Govorukhina. Photo from the network

Govorukhina advises forming three target audiences — the number that can be reached independently. Then, together with the NGO, they determine what to say to the audience.

"We develop key messages that will work with this audience. After that, we study communication channels and tools through which we will deliver key messages," Govorukhina shares.

Govorukhina has already worked with over 100 Ukrainian non-governmental organizations during her professional career.

"Nothing is impossible"

Olena Trifonova, PR manager of the project HealthLink and the charity fund "Return to Life," met Govorukhina for the first time while creating the "Filling the Gaps" project for teenagers. At that time, Trifonova was a participant in the communications training, during which the participants worked on communication and messages for the target audience.

"Then, this serious and demanding trainer clarified the importance of talking about complex things simply and getting the desired results. Our cooperation continued in the "HealthLink" project's mentoring program, where I work as a PR manager. Thanks to Govorukhina's support, I found my strengths and implemented many cool activities. Together, we agreed with the management of a local business about testing workers for HIV during work, "brought to life" theater luminary Mark Kropyvnytskyi so that his descendants received a challenge from him to check their own health, and cooperation with the Epicenter hypermarket became my successful case," says Trifonova.

Олена Тріфонова

Olena Trifonova. Photo from the network

During the cooperation with Govorukhina, Trifonova managed to establish work with local media, find new partners, attract opinion leaders, and receive many appeals to HealthLink. The PR manager says that the most valuable advice she received from Govorukhina is that nothing is impossible. Crazy ideas must come true.

"I would like to give some advice: if you are just going to work with this specialist, then be prepared that your brain will explode with creative ideas, and you will surprise yourself. And God forbid you to be late for her trainings," Trifonova laughs.

A project to support war prisoners

"On Independence Day, together with Common Sense Communications, we started a nationwide German information campaign. It is dedicated to the Ukrainian civilians who are currently in Russian captivity. Currently, there are no mechanisms to get these people out of there — only the political will of the terrorist country. The only thing we can do is talk about it," Govorukhina says.

The pages of Common Sense Communications publish the stories of Ukrainians who are in Russian captivity and brief instructions on how to support the prisoners.

The organization urges the audience to share these stories and to retell them so that they are heard. They communicate with members of the German parliament so that they write letters to the Russian embassy and ask: 'How are these people doing? Tell us about them.' The purpose is that the aggressor country understands that these people are being watched and knows that simply killing the prisoners would not work.

The specialist says that although the NGO currently works only with Germany, they are also ready to start work in other countries, but only after a detailed study of their specifics.

"So far, we are working only with Germany because we previously studied this audience. This is a pilot project. Let's see how it goes — maybe we'll also expand to other countries. Of course, only after analyzing their audience because each country has its own specifics in communications," says Govorukhina.

Марина Говорухіна

Maryna Govorukhina. Photo from the network

The women's club is for the soul

Apart from her work with communications, Govorukhina created another project for Ukrainian women living in Berlin. The expert founded a women's club, where more than 170 participants have already gathered.

"Women in Berlin often feel lonely, lack friends and support, but we can provide it to each other, do many interesting projects both for ourselves and Ukraine," says Govorukhina.

Club members communicate, study, and spend time together. 

"We have already met several times with 20 to 30 women. Communication is immediately established: 'Are you learning German? And what kind of teachers do you have?' I have children. Where do you go with them?'". We are talking about the fact that it is essential that Ukrainians in Germany not only have their own "party" but also carry their values into German society and talk about their beliefs to this audience," Govorukhina shared with Rubryka.

Govorukhina is convinced that the world is built on communications. All aspects of life depend on how we speak to others, including the approach to Ukraine's victory.


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