Role of CCO crucial as geopolitics changes everything

From ground-level descriptions of PR pros fleeing the invasion to the layered and complicated knock-on effects of economic sanctions, the conflict in Ukraine is having a massive impact.

A residential building damaged by Russian troops in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Pic: Oleksandra Butova/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
A residential building damaged by Russian troops in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Pic: Oleksandra Butova/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

“I really hope that the war ends, and as a business we return to what we love most – creating great work for our clients and the country.”

These are the words of a PR agency executive from Ukraine in conversation with PRWeek this week.

She explains via email how her life changed one month ago: “I woke up early in the morning to the bombing of Kyiv and both my family and most of my colleagues had to flee out of the city to seek shelter in the west of Ukraine.”

Along with her daughter, she fled to Germany while her husband remained behind prepared to fight to repel the Russian invaders.

Ally this to images such as Russian bombs striking a maternity hospital and killing a mother and her unborn child, and the brutality and human tragedy of the Russian war crimes is plain for all to see.

Ten million Ukrainians may have fled their homes but their countrymen are fighting back furiously and will not relinquish their country without a massive struggle. In the meantime, parts of their nation are being obliterated under constant attack.

As the PR pro says: “We have an unfair terrifying war in our country with Russia deliberately destroying our cities and killing our people every day.”

Separately, the economic global consequences of this carnage are widespread and far-reaching.

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the war could lead to "a global hunger crisis" caused by "skyrocketing food, energy and fertilizer prices."

Turns out Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe and one of the world’s largest wheat exporters. Much of that wheat leaves the country via its Black Sea ports in areas upon which Russia has its most aggressive designs. Food prices are spiking and scarcity of basic commodities is looming on the horizon.

As Bloomberg points out, the conflict may also lead to a slightly different conversation around fossil fuels in the added context of security and cost as well as the much-needed transition to cleaner energy sources.

Global energy markets have been upended as a consequence of U.S. and European sanctions on Russia, which accounts for a significant proportion of oil and gas supplies. Americans are feeling this at the pump through elevated gas prices and in the home with rising heating bills.

Fertilizer, a petroleum-based product, comprises more than a quarter of many farmers’ costs and there is currently no scalable alternative.

Nickel is vital in the production of batteries that are an essential part of electric vehicles and Russia is a leading producer of nickel and aluminum.

For multiple supply chains already strained by the global coronavirus pandemic this Russian invasion has poured fuel on the fire, impacting everyone across the world.

Within that new reality, the role of the chief communications officer is more important than ever. People want to know what CEOs and their organizations feel about issues and incidents ranging from the onset of COVID-19 to the racial reckoning brought about by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 to the aforementioned illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia one month ago.

Especially in terms of the latter, all stakeholders want clear strategy and communication about how businesses are moving beyond their economic boycotts of Russia to address the spiraling outcomes of Vladimir Putin’s egregious actions.

Forget about complaints about not having a seat at the table, CCOs are right at the heart of companies’ strategies and responses to this pressing global crisis.

Many businesses - including the major marketing services holding companies and consultancies such as Accenture and Deloitte - have largely pulled out of Russia as part of sanctions imposed following the invasion.

But it's worth noting that decoupling from a global economy such as Russia is a lot more complicated in practice than it is in theory, for the reasons laid out earlier.

However, events in Ukraine are changing attitudes to global business and opinions about operating in countries that aren't democratic, such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Interaction with India, which has yet to condemn Russia's invasion, is also under the microscope.

The tragic events playing out in Ukraine over the past month are having a significant impact across the world, as well as decimating the cities of a modern European democracy.

Clearly the second part of that statement is the most important from a humanitarian point of view and anyone with an ounce of empathy will have been moved by the awful images coming out of Ukraine.

But, as the PR pro in the embattled country says: “Ukraine is a modern, progressive European country where millions of talented people live.”

Every sane person – and that includes many Russian citizens protesting Putin’s illegal invasion of their neighbor – wants to see a time when those talented Ukrainians will once again be able to realize their potential in peace.

Let’s hope that outcome can somehow be achieved, for the sake of the people of Ukraine facing Russian bombs raining down on them, but also the rest of the world dealing with the conflict’s peripheral but critically important side effects.

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