"Communication agency should not outshine the client"

an article for «Detector Media»

How PR professionals work with community initiatives onan outsourced basis, ways for volunteers to keep media attention, and the essential skills for modern PR experts.This discussion also covers how to let go of projects while still pursuing the dream.

Veronika Kobzysta heads the Communication Agency for Social Change "9.Department". The organization's mission is to help NGOs and government agencies talk about their work in simple words.
This year, Forbes published Veronika’s story «The Factory of Failures». She talked about businesses that closed during the war.

«I would like more stories about attempts in our info space so that we could learn to perceive success and failures. Learn to reflect, not to judge and stigmatize»,Veronika wrote on Facebook.
«Detector Media» asked Veronika Kobzysta about her attempts with brands and volunteer headquarters «M,» as well as about the reboot of «9. Department» and changes in public sector communications during the full-scale war.

About the creation of the agency

— Veronica, tell us about the creation and idea behind «9. Department». Why did you take up state and public communications?
— Before founding the agency, I worked with reform communications. I was a communications officer at the BRDO Office of Effective Regulation, headed the communications of the Deputy Minister of Health, and worked as an independent consultant for non-profit organizations. Everywhere, I saw how critically the state and public sectors lacked specialized communicators.
The approach to communications in business and the promotion of social projects is very different. They have other trigger points, different tones of voice, and different models for audience engagement.

If you want to advocate for a Draft Law effectively, more is needed to create an Instagram page and launch a target. You need to know what your groups of influence are, who might support you and who will oppose you till the very end. Where these audiences get information and how to reach them.

I have seen many projects where a very aesthetic and expensive communication campaign yielded no results. Simply because communicators lacked knowledge of how the public sector works: what stages a legislative document goes through before becoming public, and how much it can change between the first and second reading. And why some crucial reforms are not shared at all.

I had an idea to create an agency that accumulates experience in socially significant projects for a long time. «9.Department» was first launched back in 2018. However, after six months, I was forced to disband the team and return to working for another company. It was my first independent launch. And, like many, it failed. I decided to try again after working at BRDO and the Ministry of Health. And now we have been holding on for two years.

«9. Department» is a separate unit that becomes part of your team for a while and helps with complex communication tasks. Nine because it is my favourite number. Department because we are a part of something. I believe that the agency should not outshine the client. Therefore, we become a «part» of your team for a while and strengthen it where needed.


Our projects

— What projects define you?
— In two years, we have completed over 15 projects. But I am not a fan of quantity. Some of them were large but short. Some were long but moderate. And there were small interventions that gave excellent results. We are proud of them just the same.
From the public cases we can talk about, we are proud of the project from the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation «Yol,» dedicated to promoting Crimean Tatar culture. In 4 months, we have released ten special projects with media coverage of almost 18 million.

Last spring, we completed our collaboration with Yuriy Marchenko on a project to rebrand the «Diia. Osvita» national portal from the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Now, it is an edutainment platform with over 50 educational series dedicated to professions, containing simulators of these professions and a selection of vacancies from the three largest job search portals. And all of it is now available in English, too.

eronika Kobzysta, Yurii Marchenko, Olena Hrazhdan (journalist and communication manager), Ivanna Krukovska (communication manager), Ronika Pozharska (SMM specialist)

We helped with the PR of the first charity concert in Kyiv since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, made websites and launched communications for several NGOs and charity funds. Now, we are systematically working on rebranding the organizational development platform «Marketplace» from ISAR «Ednannia».

— What is the history of the volunteer headquarters «M»? Tell us in simple words how life in the metro was after the russian invasion.

— On February 23, 2022, the last client left us. We were literally told, «Tomorrow Kyiv will be bombed. Here is the payment, we are terminating the cooperation».

I was sceptical of the potential threat back then. But the next morning, we woke up from the first explosions. It became clear that everything had changed.
I was born in Donetsk, and in 2014, I witnessed the «arrival of russians». So, I knew what to do. My family and I literally moved into the subway because it is one of the safest shelters. There, I accidentally met my friends with whom we moved from the occupied territories in 2014. Considering the general confusion, our knowledge came in handy. We started looking for medicines and essentials for people at the stations. At the time, about 15,000 of them spent nights on the platforms.

Later, one IT company offered us its office in Kyiv for the humanitarian headquarters. It was then that Headquarters «M» appeared officially. We focused on medicines for the de-occupied and hard-to-reach areas of Kyiv and Chernihiv regions. My family and friends volunteered at the headquarters. Then, those looking for additional space for humanitarian cargo or transport joined us. At some point, we became a logistics hub where humanitarian aid came from some volunteers, and others delivered it.
For example, once, the Ministry of Health asked us to find a car with a refrigerator to deliver medicines for patients on dialysis in Chernihiv. These drugs require a certain temperature. It was a whole logistic special operation. Thanks to the Chernihiv Territorial Defence, we found a car and a driver who delivered everything. Similarly, we delivered a ventilator to one of the hospitals in then-occupied Kherson. Fearless volunteers delivered it by foot. We accumulated hundreds of incredible people who could find and deliver even a dragon egg.

As for the agency's work, we only volunteered as a team in the first month. And in April, «9. Department» already had several new clients. We resumed work and have not stopped for a moment since.

— How did the ««Eney.Military» tactical equipment brand start and what happened to it?
— I launched «Eney. Military» in March 2022. In February-March, requests for uniforms and shoes came to the headquarters «M» constantly, and there was nothing to cover this need. We found industries that had lost sales markets and offered them to sew boots and pouches according to our patterns. We have sewn over a thousand pairs of shoes and about a thousand raincoats, uniforms, and various pouch types. All brand communications were handled by «9. Department». Since we did not specialize in product projects before, it was informative. We had a small but very loyal audience.
However, in January 2023, «Eney» did not survive the blackouts, so I had to close it. At this point, the supply chains have more or less recovered, and many industries have returned to their original work. So, we can say that this project has completed its «mission.»

— How many people are on your team? How has it changed over the past year and a half quantitively and qualitatively?
— The war is a difficult time for any business, not going to lie. Our team has almost completely changed in a year and a half of the full-scale invasion. Some left because they moved abroad and found a job there. Some dedicated themselves to community service. Some burned out and those who lost relatives at the front. For now, we have six permanent members and around seven project ones.
Generally speaking, communicators do not work in one agency for a long time. However, we are proud that most of our colleagues remained friends with us or became our partners. Sometimes, I think the «9. Department» has another function — accumulating cool, valuable specialists.

What has changed in the public sector?

— How have civil society communications changed in this year and a half? How have communication goals changed? What trends do you see? What methods no longer work?
— If we talk about opportunities, the public sector has never had so much (both Ukrainian and international) media attention as it does now.
According to a study by ISAR «Ednannia,» the number of references to civil society organizations (CSOs) in the media has increased tenfold since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. And we are talking not only about well-known organizations and foundations. The media became interested in local initiatives, small volunteer associations, etc. It is both an opportunity and a challenge.

If we talk about the quality of communications, they have become more open and sincere. For NGOs, reporting is no longer a bonus but a necessity. But asking for understanding and support from your audience is also a norm now.
Context has become more critical than ever. If your communicator did not read the news in the morning and put a giveaway result on the day of the tragedy, there is no way to fix it.

— What mistakes in public sector communication can be fatal? Can you give an example?
— I think the rules stayed the same as before the war. However, the audience reacts more to any mistakes or attempts to trick them.
If you claim something on behalf of your organization, you need to be sure that it will not damage your reputation and will correspond with the public context.

We all saw how the statement of Amnesty International destroyed their reputation in a single day. The same thing is happening with statements or reactions to tragedies from the UN and the Red Cross.

—— How to become a good communicator for public projects today? Where and from whom to learn, what experience will be useful, which skills to develop, and which to forget?
— First, talk to your colleagues. Do not be afraid to share your experiences, challenges, and failures. Go to networking events, participate in discussions, and speak at forums.
Second, involve mentors. This way of getting the right skills is becoming quite popular. Over the past year and a half, several large platforms where you can find a mentor on the topic you need have been launched in Ukraine.

Third, apply for educational programs. Now, there are many opportunities to choose from: from two-hour intensives to several-month courses.
If we talk about skills that will be useful to a communicator, I can name the following:

- basic knowledge of graphic editors;
- business communication skills, the ability to build relationships with journalists, market colleagues and contractors is very important;
- knowledge of Ukrainian and English;
- ability to generate reports and prepare analytical notes;
- orientation in popular social media trends (if we are talking about an SMM specialist);
- understanding of how to collect analytics;
- ability to take care of your mental health.

During the full-scale war, activists, volunteers, and human rights defenders became more visible to the media and society, but this wave of attention naturally declines.

— Do you agree with this statement? If so, should we keep this attention and how?
— The decrease in media attention is quite natural. On February 24, we had only one thing to talk about. However, news about civil life, film premieres, and political scandals reappeared in the information space. We got used to living in war. And now we are weaving our everyday life between air raid alerts, shellings, and terrible news from the front.
I think the public sector now has many more ways to draw media attention to its initiatives than before the full-scale invasion. And it is unlikely that we will return to the indicators of 2021.
I would advise organizations to consider regional media. For some reason, communicators in the public sector often avoid them, dreaming of getting on the national media pages.
It is important to note that many Ukrainian media are no longer exclusively a «mouthpiece» of news. They join fundraisings, organize humanitarian missions, and support the military. Nowadays, cooperation with the media is more of a collaboration. So, use this tool to its fullest.

Veronika Kobzysta, head of the Communication Agency for Social Change "9.Department" for «Detector Media». «Communication agency should not outshine the client».