Zelensky Winning the Battle of Public Opinion While Troops Hold the Line
By Evan Nierman
As horrifying images of carnage caused by Russia’s ruthless shelling of Ukraine are beamed around the world, a defiant President Volodymyr Zelensky finds himself fighting for Ukraine’s future on two definitive fronts.
His fiercely patriotic and heavily outgunned military is bravely holding the line as it ferociously resists Russia’s army. Meanwhile, Zelensky is deeply embroiled in a strategic battle for public opinion that embraces authenticity over formality and corporate norms.
The charismatic comedian/actor/lawyer-turned-politician is winning the information war. Since Russian forces invaded its democratic neighbor on February 24, the gifted communicator at the helm of Ukraine’s government has mastered the art of harnessing powerful messages and sharing them with the right tone of voice.
While his soldiers demonstrate remarkable bravery and effectiveness in conventional warfare, Zelensky and his team are creating a brand-new template for how countries involved in conflicts can stir emotions and garner support from the international community.
Other leaders and countries should take note: Zelensky’s playbook could serve them well if they find themselves on the receiving end of unfair treatment in the future.
Ukraine Leader Uses Creativity to Be Impactful
Zelensky has continuously found inventive ways to deliver impactful messages despite facing a dire of circumstances. When he spoke before a joint session of Congress on March 16, the Ukrainian president did several things that were wholly unpredictable, yet wildly effective.
Before he launched into the crux of his remarks to lawmakers, Zelensky asked Members of Congress to watch a short video. It was terrifying, jarring and wickedly effective.
The dramatic montage juxtaposed side-by-side images of Ukraine’s past and present, contrasting scenes of beautiful countryside, iconic buildings and smiling people with current pictures of smoking piles of scattered rubble, bombed-out buildings and charred bodies lying in the streets.
The sickening images, shown in a cinematic light, were hugely impactful. The video underscored the stark reality that what existed just a month ago is now gone forever. The before and after pictures showing the war’s devastating human toll left some American lawmakers visibly shaken, and teary-eyed.
The decision to broadcast images of dead children and bloodied civilians set the right mood for Zelensky’s impassioned remarks for help and added urgency and poignancy to his entreaty that the United States step up its support to Ukraine.
His pleas to Congress were an example of a very well-executed call to action that harnessed both facts and emotions, simultaneously employing logos, pathos and ethos, the three elements of Aristotle’s model of persuasion.
Zelensky’s eye-catching decision to appear before the formal assembly of lawmakers in an olive-drab, short sleeved t-shirt was indicative of his harrowing circumstance. His casual attire conveyed without words a simple truth – that he could not afford to stand on ceremony, don a suit and pretend everything was fine when it was not.
Zelensky Leverages Thoughtfully Orchestrated Appearances
Zelensky’s image as a fearless and courageous leader continues to grow as he refuses to surrender. His daily dispatches from Kyiv demonstrate in word and deed that he personally is committed to leading the Ukrainian people forward and refusing to be cowed by Russia’s aggression.
“I understand times are hard, but doesn’t the President of the #Ukraine own a suit?” Schiff tweeted after Zelensky’s speech to Congress. This comment by the investor and pundit Peter Schiff, suggesting that Zelensky’s casual dress before Congress was disrespectful, ignited a firestorm of pushback. The blowback to Schiff’s absurd take offered yet more proof that Zelensky is winning the war on public opinion.
One swirling question has centered upon whether Zelensky is making himself somehow look weak or ineffective by continually requesting that NATO enforce a no-fly-zone, which he is unlikely to receive. The answer is a resounding “no.”
As the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” It’s a sentiment that has become an integral part of Zelensky’s playbook.
Zelensky knows it is better to continuously ask for something that goes beyond that which might be possible. What he may receive in return could prove more than he would have otherwise received had he not been so persistent.
Persistence is Effective
Zelensky’s rhetorical instincts have so far have been spot-on. The results of his emotional address to Congress were followed by impressive results. Just hours after his video address from the Ukrainian capital, President Biden announced the allocation of an additional $800 million in aid to Ukraine, including drones and direct transfers of anti-aircraft systems, bringing the total amount of military aid authorized in a one-week period to $1 billion.
Zelensky has already convinced the European leaders to come together in an unprecedented alliance to sanction Russia and form a united block against Putin, placing a stranglehold on a plummeting Russian economy.
Not only is this sincere and outspoken man redefining bravery, but Zelensky is also rewriting the rules for how nations can use the power of storytelling and narrative to produce global shifts in policy. In other words, through his effective use of communication, Zelensky is giving his nation a lifeline and literally changing the world.