In a video speech at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival in May, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy quoted a classic American movie: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”
The quote from Apocalypse Now grabbed the audience’s attention and made headlines. “Yes, it started in Ukraine in the morning,” Zelenskyy continued, tying cinema and the devastating Russian invasion of his country that began Feb. 24.
“Will the movie be silent, or will it speak?” he asked, urging filmmakers to spread support for Ukraine. “We must finally win this battle…. So that every voice is on the side of freedom.”
For Zelenskyy, the stakes could not be higher. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and the right to exist as a nation. Most leaders of nations–and corporations–will never face a challenge so vast.
Still, there’s much communicators can learn from the 44-year-old Ukrainian, who is an exceptionally strong and authentic communicator.
His storytelling skills—honed during years as a producer, actor and comedian–have helped build an international coalition of support and secure funding and munitions. Internally, he’s tapped into his country’s can-do attitude.
In addition, he has built relationships with strategic partners, pivoted when circumstances changed and kept his people informed. And he’s used personal touches and even humor, cementing an emotional connection.
Below are lessons communication professionals can learn from Zelenskyy’s masterful crisis management campaign.
Lean in to Mythology
Humans have used language to share experiences and wisdom for generations. Mythology helps explain the world and communicate how a society can, and should, function.
Zelenskyy has capitalized on it. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum says, Zelenskyy is “seen as somebody who is speaking for and defending a liberal society, one which is profoundly tolerant….And yet, he’s doing it with a military campaign, and in this vigorous and extremely brave way.”
The lesson for communicators managing a crisis: Speak about inherently human values that align with your brand. Don’t shy away from connections with universal and deeply human instincts and needs.
The Power of Authentic Storytelling
Zelenskyy knows how to tell a powerful story and communicate with authenticity, especially during a crisis.
On top of that, his back story is compelling and he’s leaned into it.
Born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, he grew up speaking Russian and earned a law degree before becoming a comedian and actor. He starred in 10 movies and even won Ukraine’s Dancing with the Stars.
In 2015, he produced and starred in Servant of the People, playing a high school history teacher who becomes president of Ukraine. He “showed on the screen what kind of president he would be,” Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House, a think tank, tells Vox Media.
Life imitated art as Zelenskyy ran for office, in 2019. An entertainer, he told stories well and used humor for impact. With his visibility and wide social media reach, Zelenskyy’s campaign messages spread.
Direct, Simple Language
The direct approach he used campaigning transfers well as Ukraine battles Russia. Moreover, it shows Zelenskyy’s mastery of authenticity.
On March 1, he used simple language as he delivered a powerful speech before the European Parliament. “Without you, Ukraine will be alone. We have proven our strength. Prove that you will not leave us behind….”
His message was so emotional (more below) that even the translator choked up. In that moment, it became clear that Ukraine’s battle for existence potentially had consequences far beyond its borders. He made it “morally and politically impossible for [Europe] to stay on the sidelines,” Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster says.
Zelenskyy also knows how to pivot. He knows how to grab a moment and work it to its full potential. One cannot plan for everything, but being aware of shifts in circumstances or sentiment allows for quick course corrections.
For example, Zelenskyy’s first pivot was huge, crossing over from show business. Many thought this political neophyte was a lightweight.
But his familiar face and a newly serious mien helped him win 73% of the vote, securing the presidency. As The Guardian observed, he seems to have “dropped punchlines” from his speeches. Instead, he insisted, “All I care about is the people. Not politics. Not ambition. The people are what matter.”
There was another pivot. Initially, when Zelenskyy downplayed Russia’s growing presence on Ukraine’s borders, he lost popularity.
However, soon after the invasion, Zelenskyy recorded a video on Kyiv’s streets in an olive-green T-shirt, now his trademark. He insisted his administration was not abandoning the capital. The message restored faith in him. And his global reputation as a war-time president began growing.
In another nimble move, he followed up his famous quip, “I need ammunition, not a ride” (more below), with a heartfelt, less glib statement on YouTube.
“I’m here. We won’t lay down arms. We will defend our country because our arms are our truth. Our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.…Glory to Ukraine.”
The Rule of 7—and Follow the Data
The Rule of 7 says customers must interact with a brand message 7 times before they will act on it.
Zelenskyy uses this tactic. PR pros do, too.
As the European Council on Foreign Relations reported in 2019, “Zelenskyy was easily the most visible candidate on Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and—with his comedy videos and vlogs—YouTube.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelenskyy immediately began shaping and repeating messages:
- We must rebuff the invasion, solidify relationships with other world leaders, particularly in the West and restore peace
- Demonstrate that the government is working on getting assistance for Ukraine
A prolific tweeter (@ZelenskyyUA), Zelenskyy continues promoting these and related messages.
Similar to a good PR pro, he’s aware of analytics and knows which topics are important to his followers. Moreover, he employs social monitoring, inserting trends in his narrative.
In addition, he publishes messages multiple times on various channels. He’s aware that with a global brand, social media is a 24-hour operation. Targeted audiences may miss your message the first time it runs.
Know Your Stakeholders
Zelenskyy knows his ‘customer base’ is the world, even Russia. And while PR encourages shaping communication for targeted customers, in Zelenskyy’s case the broadest possible audience is warranted. Accordingly, inclusivity is key.
In his victory speech after being elected in 2019, Zelenskyy was inclusive. “A European country starts with everyone…we have to be united…only then are we strong.”
As Chatham House’s Lutsevych sees it, “He is saying, ‘I am the hope for change, not just for people in Ukraine, but for all people,’ likely hinting at Russia.”
Similarly, Zelenskyy knows he is speaking to several audiences. One is Western leaders who can provide financing and arms for Ukraine. The second audience is his people, who must feel supported and protected.
Zelenskyy walks a fine line addressing both constituencies, sometimes in the same speech or social media post. Look at his careful wording.
For instance, aiming his message at President Biden and other international leaders, he mentions “Strategic partnerships.”
Frequently, he tweets not only in Ukrainian, but also in English, Slovak, Polish and Georgian. As such, his messages are tailored for whomever he’s trying to influence.
When speaking with his people, he keeps an open line of communication. He may post more than 20 times daily, informing citizens of progress. A March 2 tweet: “Talked to @JustinTrudeau. Thanked him for the leadership in imposing anti-Russian sanctions….”
His simple language, often using words like “solidarity,” “resilience,” and “peace,” resonates with many levels of Ukrainian and global society.
On July 23, he tweeted: “Thank you @POTUS for the new defense aid package for Ukraine. Critically important, powerful arms will save our soldiers’ lives, speed up the liberation of our land from the Russian aggressor. I appreciate the strategic friendship between our nations. Together to victory!”
Again, he employed inclusive language, tossed the jargon and got right to the point.
Especially at the start of the war, Zelenskyy was everywhere, or so it seemed: on YouTube, Twitter and in interviews. He addressed the U.S. Congress, the European and British Parliaments, the UN and more.
And ever inclusive, he even had a Zoom call with Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, applauding their fundraising for Ukrainian refugees—and tweeted about it.
Zelenskyy’s visibility as he seeks aid and support is important in a world of split-second news briefs and social media moments.
Part of being available is also being relatable. Boosting his relatability has meant shedding blue business suits for olive-green T-shirts and military-style jackets.
The wardrobe change conveys he has become a wartime president, but also that he’s in the trenches, alongside his people. “The T-shirt is a reminder of Mr. Zelenskyy’s origins as a regular guy,” the New York Times says. It “is as clear a statement of solidarity with his people as any of his rhetoric.”
Zelenskyy believes in electronic government, “the application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to government functions and procedures” to increase “efficiency, transparency and citizen participation.”
In addition, the media-savvy Zelenskyy knows how to use data. As a political candidate, he employed crowdsourcing, using voters on YouTube to “submit the five main problems they see in Ukraine.”
As of July 2022, he had 16.9 million Instagram followers, 6.4 million on Twitter and 3 million+ connections on Facebook. His audience reach is just shy of the population of Texas.
He also understands the importance of reach through partnering. Speaking at major media events is an option in his PR toolkit.
For example, on April 3 he made a video speech at the Grammy Awards (viewership of 9.6 million).
Not only have Zelenskyy’s messages been emotional and authentic, at times they are humorous. He recognizes lightness can add a personal touch and help make an emotional connection.
In March, Zelenskyy said, “You know, we used to say, ‘Monday is a hard day.’” He paused for a beat, then added, “There is a war in this country, so every day is Monday.”
The war’s brutality and death toll are not joking matters, obviously. Yet his simple, exhausted-yet-funny statement grabbed attention.
Moreover it put the magnitude of Ukraine’s trauma and Zelenskyy’s experience as a wartime president–the work never stops!–into accessible terms. He’s saying, “You think your Monday is bad? Look at ours.” Once he has gotten people to recognize this truth, he can make his stronger, more necessary and serious points.
By watching and learning from the world leader some have compared to Winston Churchill, professional communicators may succeed just as brilliantly—especially during a crisis.
Employing the basics should be part of every communicator’s strategy:
- focus on your story
- be authentic
- pivot when needed
- stay visible
- know your audience
- have a broad portfolio of media channels
- analyze data and
- understand the power of connecting on an emotional, human level
Nicole Guillot is COO, Cision, and president, PR Newswire