Social media in government communications in Ukraine: expert opinions

By Yana Hryshko | 25 July 2017

To quote this document: Yana Hryshko, “Social media in government communications in Ukraine: expert opinions”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 25 July 2017,, displayed on 24 September 2022

Nowadays social media (SM) have penetrated every area of our life and it is hard to imagine a day without checking our social networks. It is not a surprise that they also influence governmental communication. As the first and the most important function of SM is communication, they became a powerful tool for governments to deliver their messages. However, this tool has its pros and cons and the influence of SM on government communications is not completely clear. The situation in Ukraine is even more interesting because SM in GR have started to become widely used only a few years ago. I asked three experts in government communications in Ukraine to shed light on the relevant situation in Ukraine with its challenges and opportunities.


Nouvelle Europe interviewed three Ukrainian experts in government communications, each of whom exhibit expertise with specific aspects. Mykola Kosenko is an expert in communications through SM by government, Yaroslav Zheleznyak focuses on the communication of the government, the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade in particular, with the Ukrainian parliament. Roman Ilto is a communications expert with more than 17 years of experience, and was the head of the communication campaign of the reform of state owned enterprises.


Interview with Mykola Kosenko

-  Can we state that government communications through SM have reached the top of popularity or is it just the beginning?

I think that it is only the beginning of using SM in government communication, we can say about the top of popularity in one or two years.


- Can we trace the turning point from which SM have started being widely used in Ukraine? If yes, what was the trigger?

Yes, I think the turning point was the Revolution of Dignity about three years ago in 2014. There are three reasons; first, a lot of politicians, political figures, diplomats and other public personalities started using SM, secondly, people in general started using SM more actively, and thirdly, more and more traditional medias are using SM as well. 


- How would you measure a successful media day in SM?

I think it can be measured with several indicators. Firs of all, it is of course ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and a good engagement rate. Interesting and reasonable questions in comments. Also, a lot of ‘shares’ and ‘retweets’ by traditional media. And the best result is if it was shown on TV. And as regards to foreign affairs, if your tweet or post has been shared by foreign credible media or maybe by foreign politicians and officials.


- Can you provide us with an example of successful media campaign in Ukrainian SM space?

#StopRussianAggression is a very good example or #BanRussiaFromSwift. They were at the top lists on Twitter for a long period of time, and they are still being used whenever necessary and relevant. Many hashtags related to Ukraine’s European integration like #Besvis or #UkraineisEurope are also popular. This is a way to exert pressure from the side of public opinion.


- How has the SM participation of ordinary citizens, particularly during the Revolution of Dignity, shaped Ukraine’s governmental communication?

The influence is certainly large because, first of all, a lot of new people started using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Also, we can witness the emergence of many bloggers after the revolution, there had been very few of them before, and now they are thousands, some of them as popular as professional media. Another point is that we have a lot of bloggers and volunteers working at the East of Ukraine and providing updates of the current situation using SM. And very often they are even faster than traditional media. As a result, they have a lot of followers and they promote communication through SM.


- What is the main drive behind politicians’ use of SM in Ukraine?

I think the main drivers are traditional media that are using SM, but also the quantity of people who started using SM. For example, 2-3 years ago there were only a few hundred thousand Ukrainian users on Facebook, but now it has grown to more some millions of people. The same is true with Twitter.


- If one of the main drivers is that people have started using SM more often, does it mean that politicians became ‘responsive’ and want to be seen as ‘modern’?

 Yes, they want to be modern, but they also want to be on time and want to be the first. For example, they have a meeting and they can use the instrument of live transmission. Sometimes the traditional media are not the first. You have to be first. We can see examples of many politicians who are on air, live, now, at this very moment.


- Does it mean that SM help politicians and government to be at the forefront of the news-making and agenda-setting?

Yes, and to be independent. Because traditional media are sometimes biased. They can bring up only some parts. They can extract what they think is important and they may put something out of the context. But now politicians deliver their own point first without any interpretation.


- Are there any differences in use between the various forms of SM communication? Are they used to target different audiences?

I work differently for different SM. For instance, Facebook is more often used to communicate with the general public, while Twitter is more directed at local and foreign media. Sometimes, some TV channels use screenshots of politicians’ profiles on Facebook, but in my opinion and experience, it is more for communication with people. Instagram is also for people, but, I think that it helps politicians to bring up more about informal communication.


- What influence have SM made on traditional communications with press and people?

I think that if traditional media are not using SM now they do not exist. Almost all popular media have created their pages in social networks and actively promote them. On these pages, they started using some really interesting and modern content, however, not all of them manage to do so because competition is very high.


- What is more effective, SM or traditional means?


Is the question about the current situation?


- Yes, what works better now? As we still have press conferences and official statements and so on.

Both are now very important. Even when politicians go to press conferences they have translation at their own pages. So, we have the information delivered by both channels. Secondly, after participating in some events or meetings, officials create posts at their official pages, sometimes they just post some interesting and important information, and these posts are widely used by the traditional media. So, I think, government now communicates 60-70% of information through traditional means, but 30 % through SM. But I think that in a few years it will change dramatically, as just a few years ago it was 90% to 10% respectively.


- Do officials compete with opinion leaders in SM? Is the government afraid of opinion leaders?

I think that some of them compete, some of them don't. But in most cases the most important is still the quantity of followers. Who is more popular and readable and thus influential. Some of them may compete for followers, for their audience.


- There are different people using SM and opinion leaders are often not experts in some areas. Is it difficult to resist unfair criticism in SM? As you have mentioned the emergence of big quantity of bloggers and of so-called opinion leaders, this question became even more relevant, especially considering that some of them may not have expertise in specific questions, but still have big influence due to their number of readers. Consequently, they may mislead people's perception and impede the government's job in communicating policies and initiatives. What is the state of affairs with concerning this issue?

This is a very interesting question. And I want to bring up the phenomena of "zrada" and "peremoha" in Ukrainian SM space. [Zrada: the direct translation is ‘treason’ but it is used in the meaning of ‘failure’; Peremoha: ‘victory’, ‘win’]. Now zrada appears in numerous cases and some people judge very fast when they see these indicators. Something unfavorable happened – zrada, zrada, zrada. You hear it very often everywhere. And a lot of people actually grew with the help of zrada claim, gained a lot of followers. The truth is that in most cases these zrada posts are not informationally complete. I mean, they do not introduce anything with numbers, statistics or relevant facts, but people are lazy to learn and check themselves and they just believe someone who has a lot of followers. What should the government and other politicians do? They should be more communicative, more open to a dialogue, operate high quality information – names, facts, numbers, details, etc.  I want to say that officials and governments must work with their audience, especially with bloggers, they must speak to them, with both supporters and haters, irrespective of whether they are zrada or peremoha bloggers.

On the one hand, SM have created a platform to express our opinions, and they have given a voice to people who could not be heard before, and this often brings new critics to light. Often, these criticisms are not constructive and not justified. There is actually another interesting phenomenon in our SM space called “dyvanna sotnia”, a “sofa hundred”, people who just criticize anything done by the government.


- Did it become more difficult or easier to promote policy agendas and initiatives in the age of SM? 

I think that this way of communication is one more opportunity to promote some agendas and initiatives. We can see it with the example of successful media campaigns that have been held in SM, like recent medreforma campaign [a campaign which started in SM in support of medical reform in Ukraine, in order to use public opinion to influence on the parliament], or "stop Russian aggression" [a campaign that started in Ukraine and has been endorsed in many other countries by using the hashtag #StopRussianAggression] and so on. They have become very popular in Ukrainian SM space and even abroad. So, SM are an important and useful tool to gain the support of people and to attract their attention. Even considering the emergence of sofa critics I think it brought more positive outcomes.


 Interview with Yaroslav Zheleznyak

- Can we state that government communications through SM have reached the top of popularity or is it just the beginning?

I think that it is just the beginning. The situation will change. The trend is clearly growing, however, it is sometimes overestimated. Communications through SM will be different in the future, they will be more systematized, more qualitative, more structured, but now it is definitely not at the top of popularity.


- You have mentioned that they are ”overestimated“, what do you mean?

Ukrainians are more open to government communications than in any other country where SM are more developed. In other countries, they have a more systematized process. Ideally, it should be the proper work of the press service when officials spend less time on communication through SM while providing more complete information.


- How would you measure a successful media day in SM?

The most important of course is ‘shares’, but what is even more important is who shares. If the content was shared by opinion leaders, government officials, ministers, deputy ministers, members of parliament, this is an indicator that it has been successfully promoted. This shows that the content was relevant and important. What is also important is virality of the content [Virality of the content is the ability of the content to promote itself without additional help of web-experts, when people want to share it].


- Can you provide us with an example of successful media campaign in Ukrainian SM space?

For example, the campaign about the law on freelance export 4496, which from the very beginning until the end has been held in SM. It was a great success, we did a great job on working with the audience. That can be a perfect example for communication through SM. Another example is the Amendment to the Law on ProZorro about cybersecurity [ProZorro is an Ukrainian procurement electronic system]. The scandal was first exposed in SM which influenced the adoption if these amendments. Medreforma is another example.


- What factors do you consider to be the main drivers of using SM in government communications in Ukraine?

First of all, now we have the trend that if you are young and progressive you should use SM. Secondly, it is a very convenient way to deliver your message to a very wide audience, to journalists, people, government officials, experts, NGOs etc. According to my own experience, there is nothing more convenient than to write a post on Facebook and to cover all the stakeholders you need to involve within one move. Therefore, this is the most effective and convenient way. And the third driver is that in the case of Ukraine, our traditional media may not very actively work, which is why people started looking for other sources of news and analyses.


- Are there any differences in use between the various forms of SM communication? Are they used to target different audiences?

I think that in the first place, they are used for communication with each other. I mean that politicians are communicating with politicians and experts are communicating with experts and so on. Only after that the purpose becomes to show to the other audience what happened. That makes SM primarily a tool of communication among equal ranks of stakeholders who show that ‘I am a good guy who did this and that’ and, in the second place, a tool of communication with people and media. In the case of people and media, they are directed to both to the same extent.


- What influence have SM made on traditional communications with press and people?

Of course, they change the traditional means. Try to find another way when you can so easily talk to a member of the parliament of another government official or to have a discussion with them. State your mind and in a few minutes, you can have a passionate discussion about the issue of your concern. SM also made communication with officials more open, people can see their personal life, read their comments, learn about their position. It makes them much closer and open.


- Do officials compete with opinion leaders in SM?

I consider that as an equal communication. A politician is a person with some social assets, and an opinion leader is a person with some social assets, and they compete with each other as equal units. And in this case, they compete over the audience, not with each other, their purpose is to deliver the message to the target audience, not to change the view of the adversary.


- There are different people using SM, and opinion leaders are often not experts in some areas. Is it difficult to resist unfair criticism in SM?

Everyone decides for himself or herself. Yes, this is a problem. But it has always existed in media, in press and in social networks. It is not an invention which emerged with the development of SM. First of all, I am sure that one day we will start using Twitter more actively since communication there is more interactive. Secondly, I am more than sure that these things will be ignored by both sides. A politician has stated his or her opinion, and that's all. Continuing discussion is usually counterproductive. Opinion leaders, from their side, very often gain their support through opposing their opinions to the government and providing counterarguments. Therefore, not receiving feedback to their lunges they will not receive the vibes of their popularity. Soft ignoring and changing the flow of the discussion in another direction will help to get rid of these attacks. For example, Kobolev [the head of Haftogas, a Ukrainian energy SOE], he states his positions and then does not react to populistic statements of opinion leaders because he deems it a waste of time, he will not prove to the audience that opinion leaders' statements are not correct. Instead of him it may be done by his followers and advocates. It should be an exchange of positions, not a dialogue.



Interview with Roman Ilto

The Internet seems to be an easy tool for communication, but it turns out that in reality, it is not a tool for different groups with different opinions to communicate among each other and to arrive at some sort of a compromise. More often, people use the Internet to become autonomous and to find the evidence to the views they are already subscribed for. For example, if you are on Facebook you tend to make friends with people who share your opinions and over some time you are comfortably surrounded by people who share the same opinions. You get the newsfeeds which suit your interests and views you already have, and it is rare that you will be exposed to the views of the other camp. Thus, SM, instead of promoting the exchange of ideas across different camps, it most often works to protect people from the views of the other camp.


- What influence have SM made on traditional communications with press and people?

Well, I think the biggest changes would be that the Internet and SM impose incredibly high demands on transparency. You are expected to share information almost 24/7 about every step that you make, otherwise people might start questioning why are you not sharing the information. This even reaches the point when you do not disclose information for legitimate reasons, people are questioning why you are not doing that.

A second point pertains to the speed of communication. People expect you to be able to respond within minutes or a half an hour to a crisis to a situation to present the view and do it in a very quick manner.

And thirdly, I think people are more and more used to be entertained in communication, and they are more and more used to receiving the information in smaller bits and chunks. So very rarely people would go for long reads or opinions. You need to do a short video that would deliver the message and also entertain people, or you are not expected to just post a press release, you must add some graphs, some infographics, maybe some engaging story behind it. Those I think are the main changes.

And another important thing is that the internet, and especially the high speed internet has made it possible to share videos and images. And they are very powerful communication tools. A video and a picture tells your story that is worth a thousand words. So not only do people expect to get their communication in graphic forms or to be accompanied by images or by a video, the thing is that sometimes even if the viewpoint that you are presenting is transparent and open and so on, people would believe what they see in the picture rather than the story which has very reliable sources. So, people would rather trust what they see in the picture without thinking about the source of the picture, the context, whether it shows you the whole story or a part of it, or what it actually says. They believe an image rather than a story which cites the sources which was the traditional form of communication.


- What is more effective for governments communications – SM or traditional means?

Neither of that.


- What is effective then?

All the tools are available – traditional tools like interviews, press conferences, talk shows, or you can go on SM. The thing that politicians like is the credible, tangible outcomes, results which they can present. And the biggest thing which you can do to convince people is  to deliver a reform or deliver some sort of a government service in a way which would be felt by people. For example, you can talk a lot about the reform of the police system and how the internal procedures are changing and how new people are coming in and so on. And what people actually see and perceive is that we have a new patrol police in new uniforms, in new vehicles, new look, fresh faces on the streets where people can see them, touch them, say hello and get the interaction.

Thus, in my opinion, this is a reform which was well communicated because the reform itself is amenable to communication in that tangible and visible way. Say, if you take the reform of the gas market, it is a challenge to present a credible picture of what has changed beyond the actual prices that you can see and the fact you avoided billions of dollars of potential loss by successfully winning in the Stockholm arbitration court, or that you have introduced a market mechanism for pricing of natural gas. And there is no picture behind it, nothing visual, and it is not so close to people that they can feel the positive impact of the reform. Therefore, the best way to communicate a reform is to do something which has an impact on a large group of people in a positive way as soon as possible. And as soon as they start seeing the positive outcome, they start associating the benefit of it with the reform. It does not matter in which way you communicate it.

After that you can communicate around it and there is hardly a wrong way to do it. But if you do not have that background with a tangible outcome which everybody feels, then you can use whatever means –  the communication will be weak eventually.


- There are different people using SM and opinion leaders are often not experts in some areas. Is it difficult to resist unfair criticism in SM?

Well, there is a big problem that there is more communications and the internet enables almost everyone to have a voice. It inevitably leads to the problem that it devalues the value of expertise. For instance, if you are a trained doctor, pretty much everyone thinks that you are an expert in the field, but, say, if it is a field that is less technical and if you are not an engineer but a public policy expert or a public servant, then pretty much everyone can have an opinion on how things need to be done or how the country needs to be run. Everyone thinks they are the expert and it is difficult for people to make sense out of it. And fundamentally, I think, the problem is that you have a group of experts who are truly experts in public policy, but their communication capacity is really weak, and it is weak because as experts they communicate in a complex way, because the subject matter is complex and as experts they recognize that complexity. So, their communication is not effective because people want simple messages, they want simple answers to complex questions. Then you have politicians or public servants who have expertise in either policy or politics but they very often do not have the trust of people. Fundamentally, that is a problem because they can communicate effectively and in a simple language but people do not trust them. Once you become a politician or a government official people tend to trust you less because, first of all, they think that the system is corrupt and you are a part of it, and that is because they are not seeing positive results for themselves. And second reason is that as a public official you start withholding some information because it is sensitive or hasn't been verified and you are bound by these restrictions. And there are opinion leaders, people who are not politicians, not public servants, not policy experts but they are someone whom people trust. They may trust them for different reasons. For example, they may trust Skrypka [an Ukrainian musician] because he is a good musician and naturally has a group of people who are his fans and he says things that are sensible things not only about music but on other topics and people tend to think that he is a credible person.

While these people have a lot of credibility they are not experts in the field and they can provide simple answers that people want, but usually it is not a recipe that can be implemented, usually it is that we need to do things better or to be more transparent and so on. Or why you cannot just rewrite all the laws and constitution. So yes, there is clearly a challenge for the government, because whatever they communicate, they will be challenged by experts and they need to recognize this challenge because very often it is dismissed.

They need to recognize this challenge if they want to sell the reforms to people. Basically, what they need to do is when they come to power they need to think that whatever action they take they need to evaluate it not only in terms of what is the policy impact but how it can be communicated.  Can it be communicated effectively, can the policy decision be designed in a way that it makes a great positive impact for people so they associate it with the reform. Unless this exercise is done, very often what you see is a policy decision or a press release explaining with all this complicated language what they will do, and at the same time you have all the so-called experts or opinion leaders that will come out and say ”this is all wrong, that is all wrong“.

For example, a few days ago the antimonopoly committee has released that it is going to make a decision to basically merge all its regional offices into larger clusters, so there will be fewer bureaucrats working and fewer offices. And you have a former minister of sports who is an opinion leader who then went to fight in Eastern Ukraine, and he is a head of a NGO now, and he is making comments on how the government agencies should go on this merge, whether they should do it or not and so on. You thus have a person who is not part of decision making process, who was exposed to government decision making and he is not an expert on antimonopoly matters but he has an opinion and people who support him and he is trying to deliver his opinion and suddenly you have a challenge and you need to explain the reform.


- Did it become more difficult or easier to promote policy agendas and initiatives in the age of SM?

I think it became more difficult to communicate the reforms.


- Because of opinion leaders?

Because of how the whole system works. Right now, all that the expert on antimonopoly has to do to communicate his view is to create a Facebook post and to tag the head of the antimonopoly service. And if the head is not responding he can say "oh, look they are hiding something, he is avoiding the straight question, he is not giving me the answer". And before, for his opinion to be heard, he would have to go to the newspaper, to a journalist. The journalist would probably interview him and write a piece, and the editor would consider "but is this guy an expert in the field? No. So why are we asking him about his opinion?''

So, he didn't have much of a voice in the old system, but now with Facebook, with Youtube, he can make himself heard. And it is up to people to decide wether he is credible or not. And very often people are not good at deciding what is credible and what is not credible. Very often they would think that a credible source is the one that has similar views with their own. This is a type of bias when people go only for opinion which is close to their own. If they, for whatever reason, disagree with a head of antimonopoly service they will subscribe to that viewpoint.


- But on the other hand, it helps people who are experts and who could not be heard in the past.

Exactly, on the other hand it helps real experts to communicate their viewpoint. That is true. Except with the restrictions that being experts they are not very good at communicating in a simple way because the subject matter is very complex. They will come with caveats and all the nuances and people do not like caveats and nuances. They want clear answers: when will my salary go up? When will my pension be higher? They don't want to hear all the complexity and so on.  But it is also good in a way if you work as a new politician and you have difficulties with accessing the traditional media, now you can circumvent it like Navalnyi in Russia [having difficulties with access to traditional media, Navalnyi uses his Youtube channel which now is more popular than some traditional media]. Of course, in countries like Ukraine or Russia you have a limited audience in Facebook and Youtube. It may be millions of people but it is not tens of millions, not hundreds of millions. In the US and in Europe, it is different. Yes, the Internet gives voices to all kinds of people, for example, to new politicians who are trying to build a support base, but it can also give the voice to people who are not experts on the subject but they also can have an opinion. It is just the matter of people to decide whether they want to listen to that opinion because he is credible, because he has a reputation, or because he is an expert on the field. Or whether they just listen to him because it feels good since it confirms their pre-existing views.