How MacPaw used Digital PR to fight Russian disinformation about war in Ukraine

It’s worth knowing how MacPaw uses SEO, Digital PR, and even its software products to fight Russian disinformation in Ukraine. You can apply these lessons to optimize articles with truthful information about the war in Ukraine as well as track and tackle Russian propaganda with a Ukrainian PR Army.

Now, I don’t use a Mac, so I wasn’t familiar with MacPaw until January of this year, when Julia Petryk and Eugene Kalnyk, two of the company’s dedicated PR people, attended the online training courses that I taught at Paine Publishing’s Measurement Base Camp.

That’s when I learned that MacPaw is a bootstrapped company started in 2008 by a 21-year-old student, Oleksandr Kosovan. Today, MacPaw‘s active user base exceeds 30 million worldwide. (Eugene says every 5th Mac on earth has at least 1 app by MacPaw.) The company’s headquarters is in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The Measurement Base Camp for Winter 2022 started in mid-January and ran until Tuesday, Feb. 28. But on Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And, when Katie Delahaye Paine, the CEO & Publisher of Paine Publishing, checked in with Eugene, he let her know that he had evacuated from Kyiv and was staying in a town about 70 miles west in hopes of staying safe. He also asked that we spread the word about a website that his friend had created, Help Ukraine Win.

I didn’t hear from Eugene again, until early October at the 2022 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement. His keynote speech was entitled: “Communications in a War Zone: How do you keep lines of communication open when your country is being invaded.”

To ensure Eugene’s physical safety as well as the security and stability of MacPaw’s services, his keynote speech was off the record. But he indicated that he was willing to tell the story about how MacPaw uses SEO and Digital PR to fight Russian disinformation in Ukraine – if anyone wanted to contact him later.

So, I did. And here are the questions that I asked via email and his answers:

Greg Jarboe: First, I’ve read that Russia’s latest rocket strikes plunged Kyiv into darkness. How are you and the rest of the MacPaw team doing?

Eugene Kalnyk: We are adapting, as we have been since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Russia has been massively attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since October 10. I remember hearing several loud explosions and seeing windows shaking at our HQ as Russian missiles hit downtown Kyiv some 1.5 miles from us. As of now, some 40% of Ukrainian energy infrastructure has been damaged by the Russian strikes.

Blackouts have been difficult for many of us, as they usually mean that there won’t be a way to charge your laptop, use internet, cook food, or even sometimes have running water (as electricity is needed to power the pumps to get the water to our apartments). During blackouts, mobile internet also often works poorly, as cell towers get overloaded, and they can’t run long on their batteries without electricity.

Because of the strikes, the authorities have introduced “stabilization blackouts”. For Kyiv, and many other locations around the country, this means that there’s no electricity for 4-8 hours a day in different parts of the city. Lately, the blackouts have been going on according to a schedule (more or less), and it has become easier to plan your daily activities around that schedule. We are now joking that because of COVID we learned to work remotely, and because of the blackouts, we’ll finally learning to work asynchronously.

We are trying to adapt the best way we can. At our HQ, we use a reserve power line and generators, to have electricity in some areas of our office. This helps our team members charge their devices, access the internet, and have running water. Also, we have made arrangements with coworking spaces across the city that have their own generators, where our team members can work if they need to. When the electricity is back on, we still try to save as much power as possible and use only critical electric devices.

Caption: MacPaw HQ in Kyiv in power-saving mode. Photo courtesy of Anna Manukhina

Finally, our team members are being creative at building their own charging stations in their homes, as they are using everything from power banks and car batteries to charge their devices and power internet routers.

Caption: A home power station by Yaroslav Stepanenko, Product Marketing Manager at MacPaw. Using 8 automobile batteries and an uninterruptible power source, the DIY station can power up an internet router and a laptop for up to 12 hours.

GJ: Back in February, Julia Petryk and you were attending the Measurement Base Camp as the Russians were invading your country. What did MacPaw do in advance to ensure the physical security of the company’s team members?

EK: MacPaw had been preparing for a possible military invasion since the warnings from Western officials started appearing in the news at the end of 2021. The company has organized processes, programs, and communication in such a way that the worst-case scenarios would not affect the operation of our products, so they can work completely autonomously. Thanks to preliminary measures, the team was able to focus on its own safety and the safety of relatives, volunteering for the informational fight against the aggressor. Since the beginning of the war, the company’s apps and services have been operating with no disruptions, including CleanMyMac X, Setapp, and The Unarchiver, nothing has changed for users. MacPaw securely hosts all of its infrastructure and user data on Amazon Web Services outside Ukraine, and the payment provider the company works with, Paddle, operates from the United Kingdom.

While preparing for the war, MacPaw also rented a coworking space and temporary accommodation in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in West Ukraine, so that our core team could move and work in a safer place and keep our services stable.

MacPaw also ensured the stability of financial payments under any conditions. The company provides financial aid to all team members who need it.

Today, most MacPaw professionals have been able to return to work. However, if someone can’t do their job, the company is understanding. The safety of team members and their families is a top priority for the company.

For all professionals who are currently unable to return to their work at MacPaw due to volunteering or service in the Ukrainian Army, the company guarantees the payment of monthly remuneration in full for as long as necessary. Specialists also retain their positions in the company.

During the war, the Office Administration team was reformatted into the Emergency Concierge Service to help everyone in the company find a safe place to live and resolve other urgent requests. The pandemic has taught MacPaw to work effectively remotely, so today the format of remote work is familiar. To make it more comfortable, the company allocates a budget for workplace or coworking rent.

The MacPaw coaching team conducts daily group meetings on psychological support, as well as individual sessions for the company’s specialists and their relatives to support their mental health amidst these uneasy times.

GJ: At the 2022 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement in October, you talked about “Communications in a War Zone.”  How did MacPaw keep the lines of communications open with your customers when your country was being invaded?

EK: As a part of our emergency plan, we prepared a statement to publish in case of the full-scale invasion which we put out immediately in the morning of the attack.

We needed to address the concerns of our customers, and our main messages were:

  • MacPaw team members are safe
  • MacPaw services are stable and operational
  • Users’ data is safe and is securely stored in cloud services hosted on servers outside of Ukraine

The MacPaw Customer Care team also prepared a similar message indicating that our response time might take up to 72 hours (instead of the usual 24) and that the Russian aggression will not affect company’s products and services. It also helped that in addition to our in-house Customer Care team, we have and an outsourced team who have support specialists in several countries — they were able to pick up communication that specialists inside Ukraine couldn’t handle as they were taking care of their safety.

GJ: On Feb. 28, 2022, MacPaw published several blog posts including “MacPaw’s Operations amidst the Russian Aggression against Ukraine” and “The truth about Russian attack on Ukraine.” What are some of the things that Ksenia Demchenko did to optimize blog articles with truthful information about the war in Ukraine?

As the team got to safer locations, we felt that it was our mission to communicate truthful information about the events in Ukraine. We prepared a blog post with trusted sources in English and Russian.

At that time, it was also important for us to communicate about what we were going through with our users in Russia, and we also made these blog posts available in Russian in hopes that Russian citizens would petition their government to stop the war. We shared the posts through the company’s social media, email newsletters, and via our products.

Caption: A pop-up window in CleanMyMac X saying “Find out the truth about the events in Ukraine” for customers in Russia

Soon, Russian Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor banned access to MacPaw’s website for users in Russia.

We started putting out posts on MacPaw’s social media debunking Russian disinformation and sharing what our team and our country were going through at the time.

We also added pro-Ukrainian messages and symbols to our applications.

These were very busy times in terms of communication, as we received massive support and empathy from our users. At the same time, these were the most difficult times for MacPaw’s Customer Care team, as there were users who didn’t like to see such messages from a software development company, but many changed their minds when they found out that we are a company from Ukraine and that we were going through this war in real time.

GJ: I understand that Ksenia also does SEO as a volunteer for the official website of Ukraine. Although it was created to attract tourists, the website has turned to covering the war-related events and ways to help Ukrainians. Are there some valuable insights that she can share about what their team has done?

Ksenia Demchenko, Senior PR specialist at MacPaw:

We have a separate subdomain to cover war-related information about Ukraine. One of its main traffic sources is organic search – since the beginning of full-scale invasion, our website got over 7 million search impressions and over 200 thousand search clicks worldwide.

From the SEO side, we regularly monitor trending search queries about the war in Ukraine in order to cover them by writing analytical content pieces. Later we optimize the content to help them rank better. Our main goal is to tell the truthful information about the Russian invasion to foreign audiences and encourage them to support Ukraine by donations. Thus, our article “Why Russia invaded Ukraine” has been raking in top positions since the war started. People started googling the reasons of this war from February 24, and they keep doing so in different languages.

A decent amount of search traffic goes to the Photos section which serves as a war photo gallery. Also, people keep searching about Russia’s war crimes – and we rank with a whole War crimes section there.

The website is localized into 8 languages, including Russian, Chinese and Arabic.

GJ: Julia and you are also a part of the community of Digital PR experts that is fighting against Russian disinformation. Can you share any stories about the battles that the Ukrainian PR Army has fought while tracking and tackling Russian propaganda?

EK: The Ukrainian PR Army started on February 24th, when lives of all Ukrainians changed momentarily with the Russian invasion. Julia is teaching global PR in Ukraine, and one of her alumnas came up with an idea to create a community to work with international media and resist Russian propaganda. Today, PR Army unites 200+ comms specialists who volunteer in multiple directions: requests from journalists, eyewitness testimonies, and resisting disinformation, among others.

In the first month, the team has been able to address 1,468 requests from journalists.

PR Army’s mission is to spread truthful narratives about the events in Ukraine through news, expert articles, and eyewitness stories.

One of the biggest achievements for the team, was helping to release a Ukrainian activist from Russian captivity in the city of Kherson (currently occupied by Russia). His daughter reached out to the PR Army, and after a series of articles in the media he was released.

There’s also a team that constantly monitors major news outlets for signs of misinformation and misleading narratives.

For example, there was a case when Reuters put out a tweet saying that “Over 96% said to favour joining Russia in first vote results from occupied Ukraine regions”. The tweet was misleading as it was implying that people who lived on the occupied territories really favored joining Russia, as it failed to mention that the referenda were held at Russian gunpoint and were condemned by the United Nations General Assembly.

The PR Army team reached out to Reuters, and they corrected their tweet to provide a more balanced information about the referenda.

GJ: In March, MacPaw provided users in Ukraine with free access to your VPN product ClearVPN, so that they could safely communicate with loved ones who may have fled the country or were living or studying abroad. Your company also provided journalists covering the war in Ukraine with a free year of CleanMyMac X to make sure their devices are working without fail in this critical time. And MacPaw developed SpyBuster, a tool that spots apps with servers in Russia and Belarus. Can you share the story of how your development team updated CleanMyMac even while under fire?

EK: The first couple of days, it was impossible to do anything productive as MacPaw team members were taking care of their personal safety, and volunteering in any way they could.

How can you keep developing software when your country is under fire? In the times of a devastating crisis, you mobilize all the internal resources to fuel projects to somehow help your nation to survive and resist. Work also helps to handle the stress, as it gives a sense of control in extremely turbulent times when you don’t know what will happen the next minute, so you try to give meaning the very moment you’re in.

After Russia started the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, cyberspace became the second front – Ukraine’s digital infrastructure began to suffer numerous cyber attacks. To help Ukrainians protect their data from cyber threats, MacPaw engineers from the Technology R&D team created SpyBuster, a free on-device anti-spyware app.

Before the invasion, the MacPaw Technology R&D team was responsible for integrating new technologies into MacPaw products and developing the company’s R&D culture. Since the beginning of the war, the team has focused on finding solutions to support the national cybersecurity and Ukrainian users.

Serhiy Kryvoblotsky, Technological R&D Lead at MacPaw and the initiator of the project, tells how the idea of ​​the program appears: “Among our stored research results, I decided to find research that would help strengthen the country’s cybersecurity. The one on technologies for protecting users from network traffic from malicious applications has proved useful. At first, I developed the project myself. It was difficult, first of all, because I did not understand whether this project would have potential. And during the war, everyone wants to make the ultimate contribution to the country’s victory. Just then, in a work chat, one asked how to check whether the program was created by a Russian developer – to eliminate or block access to such a program in the system. It clicked. I knew what to do next and enlisted the support of several other MacPaw engineers. We started creating SpyBuster.”

SpyBuster helps users immediately see applications related to Russia installed on a Mac and identifies sites that send data to servers in those countries.

Such connections are potentially dangerous to national and personal cybersecurity, not just in wartime. Russian legislation (Yarovaya Law) allows FSB and other Russian law enforcement agencies nearly unlimited access to any user data on Russian servers without a court order. Such regulations may not meet the standards of security and privacy of online users.

Later, part of SpyBuster’s functionality has been integrated as a “Suspicious apps” module in CleanMyMac X.

GJ: Finally, what can the SEO community and digital marketers do to help Ukraine prepare for the upcoming winter?

EK: Actually, there are no limits to what one can do to help Ukrainians: from sharing words of support, to fighting disinformation, to donating to local charities and helping the Ukrainians you meet in any way you can. We are extremely grateful for everything people and governments around the world do to helping us defend our homes and our freedom.

We are actively supporting Ukrainian defenders through the MacPaw Development Foundation, a non-profit organization established by MacPaw in 2016.

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the MacPaw Foundation has used the unique expertise of MacPaw to empower Ukrainian defenders with non-lethal help such as comms and reconnaissance tech, tactical medicine supplies and protective gear. You can find out about more information about the MacPaw Foundation here:

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