The success of Zelensky’s communication

After a month of fighting, the war has already left millions displaced and populations reduced to rubble in Ukraine, although the Russian army has failed to capture any major cities and its advance is stalled on almost all fronts. Faced with the resounding failure of its initial strategy, Moscow has chosen to focus on the brute force of the bombing, while kyiv continues to await that kilometric column of tanks that seems to have been lost on the Ukrainian roads. The capital is preparing for a street-by-street assault that is expected to be fierce, although it has not yielded a millimeter in its firmness, converted into the heroic bastion of a country led by a leader that very few expected: Volodímir Zelenski.

Initially undervalued by the Kremlin, Zelensky is now the symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. Far from running away from the first shots, this actor turned politician has emerged from the ashes of Ukraine as a solid leader whose figure has been reinforced over the weeks, thanks to its omnipresence and a masterful use of communication techniques.

His activity is frenetic. As soon as he appears walking through the streets of kyiv, recording himself with his mobile phone, as well as sharing some photographs on social networks in which he can be seen in a relaxed attitude, hugging his ministers; while he grants interviews to the media around the world or delivers emotional speeches before international institutions, bringing tears to his audience.

“Zelensky has a communicative power that I haven’t seen in a leader in a long time,” he says. David Redolisociologist and former president of the Political Communication Association of Spain (ACOP), who analyzes for the keys to this success, listing the five pillars on which he believes it is based: “The first is exemplariness, since he is someone who marries what he says with what he does. Second, it is a integrative leadership; he appears, but also his team. The third is that he takes great care of the international influence. The fourth is that it is a inspirational leadership, because it speaks of the future, not only of what is happening right now in Ukraine, but of the scenario of peace, reconstruction and integration to which he wants to lead the country. And finally you have authenticityand her bravery breeds an empathy that’s very hard to fight.”

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A president with acting skills

If great leaders are forged in crisis situations, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has served to catapult Zelensky, a president who was brought to power in 2019 more as a punishment for the ruling political class than as confidence of the electorate in his project. Well known among the Ukrainian population, his celebrity was mainly due to starring in the television series village servant, a comedy in which a nondescript high school teacher manages to become president of the Government.

The name of the series served to baptize his newly created political party, whose banner from the outset was the fight against corruption. But in recent months his popularity was in free fall. Until Vladimir Putin launched his tanks against Ukraine and the Russian president began to choke on this hand-to-hand fight against a country embarrassingly inferior in terms of military capacity.

Volodímir Zelenski’s interpretive facet is precisely another of the key points of his success, a skill that contributes to his ease in front of the cameras and can more easily obtain both international empathy and that of his own people. “Without a doubt, his training as an actor is helping him,” he assures Moses Ruizprofessor at the European University of Madrid and expert in leadership and communication.

“In such a delicate situation, you have to dominate the scene very well, know what you want to say, when and where you want to say it, so that it provokes that solidarity that you want. It is what is called winning the story”, he continues, and explains that his message has been “I am here, they have offered me to leave but I will stay as one more, I do not fear death and I will fight until the end. These are words full of emotions that encourage their compatriots not to give up” .

sociologist David Redoli agrees that the communication techniques and management displayed by Zelensky are largely due to his experience as an actor, and assures that “this, unfortunately, is the role of his life”.

Zelensky, during an interview for a media outlet in kyiv. REUTERS

two opposite styles

The images that arrive from the entrenched city of kyiv are also a reflection of that unequal war that both sides, the attacker and the attacked, face in opposite ways. Zelenski usually appears smiling, very close to those around him, and dressed in military clothing, to show that he is one more soldier at the service of Ukraine’s defense. On the contrary, the images of the Kremlin maintain a grandiose, almost Soviet style, and in them you can see Putin with a stern face, always threatening, or taking an old-fashioned mass bath.

“Putin is the antithesis of Zelensky, and he appears with a contemptuous gesture. He does not want any emotional harmony, but rather that everything be absolutely rational and taken to the extreme of coldness. What he wants is to instill fear, because he considers that it is his sign of strength, that this is how they will have respect for him. They are behaviors of the last century”, values ​​the specialist in leadership Moses Ruizwho considers that Zelensky, on the other hand, “has a more current response to the war conflict, that is, he uses communication as a weapon in all its aspects, in social networks, working on emotional communication, while Putin appeals to classic propaganda of regimes like the communist or the Nazi”.

In this line, David Redoli believes that “What happens to Putin is what happens to all autocratic states, and that is that they end up confusing communication with mere propaganda. And when you impose it internally, everyone buys it from you, because it’s an authoritarian state, because you think you’re communicating, but from the outside you can see that it’s pure and simple propaganda.”

However, he warns that these strategies “usually work in the breeding grounds to which they are directed”, since “how we receive it, and the eyes with which we see it in the West, is not the same as how it can be do in other places on the planet. We would have to see how this propaganda is being received in China, in India, or in certain countries in Africa or Latin America, where it may be penetrating public opinion”.

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Zelensky, social media specialist

Social networks, in which Zelensky accumulates millions of followers, have been another of the important assets of his communicative success. Every day, the Ukrainian president publishes dozens of messages through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, with which he tries to keep the morale of his soldiers high, encourage citizens or demand greater involvement from Western countries. In just a month, his popularity has skyrocketed to extremes not known even during his time as an actor.

sociologist David Redoli He compares him to former US President Donald Trump, “who was doing this in a similar way, but in a different direction.” “Zelenski uses social networks and generates closeness and immediacy. It is recorded directly with a mobile phone and uploaded to the networks, but this communication is not only for the social network, since it immediately penetrates newspapers, televisions, radios… and becomes a mass communication”, he explains.

Although, regardless of the medium used, the message is always similar, and appeals to the most basic feelings. “Within the types of communication that exist, its communicative strength is clearly based on the emotional one. It loads the word with emotion to launch it with great force in its message”, he describes Moses Ruiz. “What are the emotions that Zelensky wants to arouse? On the one hand, love for his people and freedom; and on the other, the pride of belonging to a nation,” analyzes this specialist.

A woman makes pillowcases bearing Zelensky’s image at a workshop in Ceska Lipa, Czech Republic. REUTERS/EVA KORINKOVA

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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