Pursuing a previous career as comedian, Ukraine’s president could capitalize on a fictional character he played. And when Russia invaded, Volodimir Zelensky deftly deployed his charisma and the communications abilities he acquired during this career. Communicating as president of a country under attack, his performance is outstanding.
In April 2019, a comedian became an electoral phenomenon, gaining more than 70% of the vote in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky was acting in a television satire dubbed “Servant of the People” as nothing less than the president of his country. A simple, but attractive script.
Zelensky played an elementary school teacher who comes to run the country by accident, close to what would later become his own reality. Its producers registered the brand “Servant of the People” and then created a political party with the same name.
On the campaign trail, Zelensky vowed to tackle corruption and nepotism, to “clean up Ukrainian politics,” he said. Curiously, one of his key phrases, “without promises, there is no disappointment,” galvanized his supporters. Without any political experience, the election winner was a perfect copy of the humble, good-natured and friendly teacher he played in the series.
Often, Zelensky created tremendous confusion between character and actor. While on stage or on-air citizens were only able to visualize and identify with the main actor of the country’s most successful TV show. A thick PR haze obscured the politician behind the comedian.
The episode of the show in which Zelensky becomes president and enters Mariyinsky Palace in Kyiv is masterful. It shows a simple, shy man who approaches people – who were, however, hired for the occasion – to greet them and take selfies with them.
I must confess that Zelensky’s character captivated me in 2020, when I was researching for the reality fiction novel I published last year. I wrote a chapter in which a Chilean comedian becomes a presidential candidate to capitalize on the country’s crisis, and who was inspired by Zelensky’s life story and that of Jimmy Morales another comedian, who became Guatemala’s president in 2016.
Above and Beyond
Unlike his TV character, Zelensky, the real-world president, has become a truly charismatic leader during Russia’s cruel and ruthless invasion, even turning into a global phenomenon due to the shortage of true leaders.
He undoubtedly knows about communications and has taken care of every detail in his appearances. Almost like a pre-assembled script, he changed his clothing style, from the dark suit and tie to the olive green shirt with the emblem of Ukraine on his heart, transmitting daily messages of strength and hope to Ukrainians via his cell phone. He is seen as one of the people, suffering, but optimistic.
In war there is no time to shave, so Zelensky does not shave, just like the soldiers. He appeals to citizens via emotions, achieving levels of identification that radiate into the rest of the world. It is impressive how the sympathy he generated has crossed ideological positions. Leaders of the left and the right use it as a reference.
Hundreds of people gathered in Santiago to march against the war in Ukraine. Waving banners, flags and yelling anti-war chants, the crowd showed that even on 14.000 km of Ukraine, there are people supporting the war-torn country. @chile_apoya_ucrania pic.twitter.com/ACcFmC3Lcb
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) March 5, 2022
Different Communications, Different Results
I think Zelensky, the actor, has done an impeccable communications job, projecting courage, the spirit of nation, and the dignity of the weakest in a war that follows the logic of David against Goliath.
Unlike other wars, this one is being followed live by millions via social media, which has been key for Ukraine – and Zelensky’s great communications strategy. He uses simple, emotional, but firm language. It seems that every sentence was rehearsed. His daily speeches convey control, even though the country is on its knees and millions had to flee, and he has been able to mark turning points. Within 24 hours of the attacks, he said, “they have abandoned us.” That single phrase moved many countries, but specifically Europe and the US.
Russia, on the other hand, has deployed an out-of-time, cold war-style communications strategy. Officials could not reasonably explain why Russia had to invade Ukraine. Their thuggish style and the threats to cause global catastrophe have not helped either.
Being real-world president is Zelensky’s best role by far. I imagine that some script writers are already thinking about the next series inspired by Ukraine’s president.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.