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A a live broadcast of the press conference of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk plays in the background as riot police prepare for duty outside of the regional administrative building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Friday, March 7, 2014. (Sergei Grits/AP)
A a live broadcast of the press conference of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk plays in the background as riot police prepare for duty outside of the regional administrative building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Friday, March 7, 2014. (Sergei Grits/AP)

In Ukraine’s war of words, a PR machine girds for battle Add to ...

As Russia and the West trade accusations over the future of Ukraine, a group of public relations consultants has banded together to help the Ukrainian government deliver its message.

About ten communications firms in Kiev have opened the “Ukraine Crisis Media Center,” which organizes press conferences with government representatives, community leaders and activists associated with the protest movement, known as Maidan. They also arrange interviews and trips for foreign journalists to other Ukrainian cities.

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“We set it up as a platform in which Ukraine can amplify its voice in the international dialogue,” said Nataliya Popovych, president of Public Relations Partnership, or PRP, one of about ten firms involved in the project. “Given that it’s not just a usual war but an information war, we felt that our skills and knowledge could be useful in this interim time to help Ukraine be heard.”

The war of words in Ukraine has intensified with the Crimean government’s decision to hold a referendum next week on whether to join Russia. Crimean officials and Russians contend that the government in Kiev is illegal and beholden to the Maidan, causing instability across the country. They argue Russia is protecting Crimea from the chaos and that most people in Crimea want to join Russia. Officials in Kiev say the referendum is illegal and that Russia has violated international agreements by sending troops into Ukraine.

In a press conference Friday organized by the Crisis Centre, Ruslan Koshulynsky, the deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, said the referendum was a “huge test” for the new government. He said parliamentarians are doing all they can to stop it from taking place, including withholding voters’ lists. However, he acknowledged there is little more the government can do and it is relying on international pressure on Russia. “Today is just the beginning of a long diplomatic fight with Russia,” he said.

There are already signs that Crimean officials are taking steps to control its message. Reporters with some media outlets on the territory have been threatened and the largest non-government broadcaster, Black Sea TV, has been taken off their air. Black Sea is owned by figures tied to the political party led by Ukraine’s new Prime Minister. Crimean government media and Russian television now dominate in Crimea and much of the reporting has been critical of Ukraine’s protest movement and the new government in Kiev. On Friday, Russia’s parliament said it would respect the outcome of the referendum, which is widely expected to back the Crimean government’s decision to become part of Russia.

Ms. Popovych said the idea for the Crisis Center was hatched last weekend in a series of phone calls among communications consultants who felt Ukraine had to counteract the Russian narrative. They pooled their resources and opened the centre on Wednesday in the Hotel Ukraine, which still has bullet holes from the violent clash between protesters and police last month that killed more than 80 people. All of the services have been donated and the centre is not receiving any funding from the Ukrainian government, she added. Rent for the space in the hotel has been covered by a donation from the International Renaissance Foundation, one of several organizations set up by philanthropist George Soros to promote democracy and a free press in countries around the world.

“Russia has a very strong voice in the international media and it has been intensified post Sochi [Olympics] in the international media,” she said. She added that the Ukrainian government, which formed last week after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, is “very new and it’s just setting up the basic functions of the government and it still [does not have time] to properly set up all of the communications functions.”

So far about 900 foreign journalists have registered with the Center, which will likely stay in operation for a while. “We are happy to go back to our businesses and usual jobs after the situation is back to peace and Ukraine is fine,” said Ms. Popovych. “But for the time being, we feel we are needed here.”

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