Midsummer is the time when most business people are on long-awaited vacations, enjoying sunny beaches or cool mountains, long walks and dinners with loved ones. In a normal year, Ukrainian civil society and entrepreneurs would also enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, the Russian war against Ukraine does not take a holiday break.
This war has already undermined and destroyed the lives of 40 million Ukrainians who have suffered over 23,000 war crimes. And the consequences for global society are far more far-reaching than one might think. This war has devastated the lives of millions of people around the world, with world hunger on the horizon, a recession on our doorstep and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. This is a difficult topic, there is no way around it. No wonder we hear more and more about media fatigue when it comes to Russia’s war in Europe.
But this is the war of attrition: you can’t take a break here or you’ll lose everything. That’s why we decided to get involved and remind companies that it’s time to do the right thing that needs to be done to deprive war of its fuel – money.
We are a new coalition. Created by dozens of civil society organizations from Ukraine and around the world – think tanks, human rights organizations, ethical investor advisory groups and concerned activists. We have united our efforts under the name of the Business for Ukraine (B4Ukraine) coalition. We call on the companies that continue to operate in Russia to divest and withdraw. We ask those who left the Russian market to stay out until Ukraine’s full sovereignty is restored within internationally recognized borders and until the Russians bear responsibility for any war crimes they committed against the Ukrainians.
The launch of the coalition comes just as we are five months into Russia’s all-out and unprovoked war against Ukraine. While Ukrainians live under the constant threat of death every day, International companies seem to have left the war far behind . It was briefly high on the business agenda in March and April but has since died out.
Based on joint research by the B4Ukraine coalition and WeAreUkraine.info, only those companies whose activities were affected by the sanctions in May-July 2022 have made public recent statements on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The rest preferred to remain silent unless asked for an update by the journalists. This is not surprising considering that most companies have not completely withdrawn from Russia.
But it’s an inappropriate approach for the modern world. As Richard Edelman recently said while citing the Edelman Trust Barometer special report in Cannes, 14,000 respondents in 14 countries (including employees, NGOs and other stakeholders) said: “There is a growing call for greater business involvement in geopolitics. ’ with CEOs ‘who are expected to shape policy on societal and geopolitical issues’. Although CEOs or investors rarely do so publicly.
It’s important for communicators to think about how companies explain why they continue to do business in a country that has already committed over 23,000 war crimes in a neighboring sovereign state.
We examined it very closely, looking at 1179 companies that, according to the KSE Institute, continue to operate in Russia, either fully or to a limited extent.
We found out, that 8 out of 10 companies voted Silence as the main mode of communication .
Only 2 out of 10 companies made some kind of public announcement about her decision to stay in Russia, and only 1 in 10 companies explained why, with the most popular excuse being the “essentiality” of the product they made.
This justification is often used by international companies active in FMCG (Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Auchan), Food & Beverage (Cargill, Barilla Group), Pharma and Healthcare (Pfizer, Sanofi).
And here we see the second problem: the questionable justifications of the companies. While we would like to commend companies for being vocal about their reasons for staying in Russia, what they say is not always, to put it bluntly, true.
Take the “materiality” excuse, for example. Usually emotionally charged, for many companies it is just that – an excuse, questionable at best and deliberately deceptive at worst. The shining example here is a statement of Mondelez International : ‘As a food company, we are reducing all non-essential activities in Russia while helping to maintain continuity of food supply in the challenging times ahead.’ In fact, the company is the Russian leader in the categories of chocolate, sweets and biscuits, and also ranks second in the market in the categories of chewing gum and lollipops. You can’t seriously suggest that candy, gum or lollipops are essential products.
The thing is, we all understand why companies really choose to continue working with Russia, even if they don’t explain it. You and I both know. Money. But in times of transparency and public demands for corporate accountability, companies can lose money if they choose to remain silent and continue to operate in the country known for waging unprovoked wars and killing thousands of civilians. It’s time for companies to face up to reality – not only are their explanations rare, but they’re so bad because there really isn’t a good justification for them, and the only real reason is too direct a reason, unsuitable for corporate communications.
So what do you do as a communications, public relations and public affairs consultant? You can Help clients make the most informed decisions about whether or not to resume operations in Russia for the sake of the companies future.
Advisors in sustainability, corporate responsibility, public affairs, communications and international relations play a crucial role in the company’s decision-making process. As a consultant, you can get a basic overview of the current crisis by looking at it from multiple angles.
Among the guides we have developed for companies and executives Ukraine Communications Support Network, a coalition of ethical communications consultants, I would like to highlight the following three:
Take the long look. In the spring, we saw some statements from short-sighted business leaders who were already discussing resuming activities in Russia on the premise of a so-called “cessation of hostilities”. This was against the background that the Ukrainian army suffered the most casualties and over 85% of Ukrainians said they were not ready to make concessions to Russia. So basically not even a hinge of termination in sight. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the crisis will resolve itself and you can just sit it out. It can go on like this for a long time – and you should be prepared to act accordingly.
Take the wide view . The war vividly shows how interconnected the world is – we are already discussing the threat of hunger in different regions of the world and Russia’s willingness to bring the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. This observation points to the broader interests and values at stake for corporations in the Russia-Ukraine war: support for this rules-based international order that may become the basis of a new geopolitical corporate responsibility.
Take a leadership perspective . Now is not the time for followers – companies waiting for real leaders in their industries to act first. Nor is it the time for companies trying to sit on two chairs (example here is the Rockwool company, which sponsors regattas with its fair game values but stays in Russia waiting for the competitors to leave). In most places, business is viewed as the source of accountability, stability, and leadership. These qualities are in demand today more than ever. It really is the “finest hour” for companies to lead with values and communicate with intention.
Today it is not enough to admire the resourceful, courageous willingness to fight and die of Ukrainians. It only leads to more deaths like the death of Mykola Rachok – the graduates of my alma mater Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He was killed on July 19 near the city of Pokrovsk in the Donbass region. He studied philology, Ukrainian language and literature. He was a Master of Arts in Literary History… He was 27. He’ll be 27 forever.
We must give Ukraine every chance to turn the tide and drive out the invaders. Now is not the time for half measures, for burying one’s head in the sand, going on vacation, postponing important decisions until autumn or the end of the year – nor is it the time for Ukrainians to hastily negotiate or make concessions to force. And it’s no time for excuses.
These are difficult times, difficult times, challenging times. They require leadership, willingness to act, and a willingness to stand firm under the pressure of the immense challenge in the name of freedom and the humanitarian values to which we all strive to remain true.
Nataliya Popovych is co-chair of the Ukraine Communication Support Network.
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