Blog post,  Communication Strategy

Communication lessons from Zelensky

Last week, Ukraine’s President Zelensky gave the world a lesson in masterful communications. As he navigates the unimaginable destruction of his country and demonstrates strength as a leader, he has also shown how to engage your audience.

While the horrors of war have not gone unnoticed, I could not help but also admire the strength and strategy demonstrated by the Ukrainian President.

Part of modern warfare is a public relations game, raising your profile and positioning understanding on the international stage. Zelensky is playing the PR game well. Not a day goes by without seeing him delivering a speech to a foreign government, posting an authentic (unpolished) video to social media or an international journalist interviewing one of his government.

Lesson one: Go to the audience

Last week, Zelensky took his message directly to his audience. He considered the authorising environment that he is working in and identified those who can have the most influence on reaching his outcomes. In communications terms, his key stakeholders – the governments of the western world.

He didn’t wait for them to come to him to get information. He didn’t expect them to look at the information he is pushing out social media feeds in Ukrainian. He went to where they are.

In the last week, he has spoken directly to the Parliaments of the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Germany and Israel.

He capitalised on the opportunity to get international media coverage and to reach the citizens of these countries, who in turn can put pressure on their governments to provide further support. As a result, his speeches have received almost as much media coverage in the last week as the battle for Mariupol.

Lesson two: Tailor your messages

In his speeches to Parliament, Zelensky has a clear message seeking support for Ukraine, but he sent it in a way that would resonate with his audience by tailoring the message to each country.

On Wednesday, he addressed US Congress, referring to Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terror attacks. On Tuesday, he asked Canada’s parliament to envisage bombs and missiles falling on Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton.

Last week, in his address to the House of Commons in London, the language he used referenced Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches and Shakespearian quotes.

On Thursday, in an address to the German Bundestag, he told German MPs that ‘a new type of Berlin Wall is being built, dividing Europe between freedom and oppression, a wall between east and west’. In a similar approach to his speech in the House of Commons, he used historical references like “Dear Mr Scholz, tear down this wall.” Referencing US President Ronald Reagan’s historic demand to the Soviets in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. He also played on historic guilt, reminding Germans that this was the second time in 80 years Ukrainian towns and villages had been destroyed by war.

Zelensky used consistent messaging but tailored it to each audience. He knew the references that would resonate with the group and used them to create personal connections to his message.

Lesson three: A clear call to action

Zelensky has asked all NATO allies to enforce a no-fly zone over his country, but his final communications lesson was to create a clear call to action specific to each country.

In Germany, he called for the end of business relations with their Russian neighbours, including the Russian-German gas pipeline, which he referred to as the “cement for that new wall” dividing Europe.

He asked the United Kingdom for British humanitarian aid, military support, and specifically a ban on purchasing Russian oil.

In a more personal approach, Zelensky used his Judaism as the basis of a personal plea for Israel to provide ammunition to Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia.

Each call to action was tailored to the support he needed from each country and their interests.

Communications lessons for all

Whether you are working in a crisis or trying to communicate a complex message, Zelensky’s approach is a lesson for us all.

  • Don’t wait for the audience to find you. Take your message to them, whether it is an international government or farmers in a community hall.
  • Tailor your messages. Don’t expect that one message will suit every audience.
  • Create a clear call to action. Make sure your audience understands what they need to do and has a specific, clear call to action.

Media used in researching this article:

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