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Zelensky shows the power of persuasion during time of crisis


Whether he is reporting news in cryptic sound bites on Twitter or speaking from a gloomy subterranean bunker or darkened streets, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to demonstrate the enormous impact of harnessing powerful messages and sharing them with the right tone and authority.

In addition to his undeniable bona fide leadership skills, Zelensky is also providing a master class in strategic communications. Political leaders across the globe could learn much from Zelensky’s skillfully straightforward talk — so different from the usual Washington partisan sniping or smoke-and-mirrors repartee we often seen. Zelensky’s eloquence has not only captured the attention of the world, it has proven the catalyst to major policy shifts.

I need ammunition, not a ride,” was Zelensky’s retort when the United States offered to evacuate him out of the capital as Russian forces descended on Kyiv. Politicians know the power of a quotable quip, but Zelensky mastered it like few before him, in part because there’s seemingly nothing contrived about what he says.

The line is now the stuff of internet memes and T-shirt slogans in the West, which has only helped in response to the critical situation in Ukraine.

The comedian/actor-turned-politician has demonstrated true genius as a crisis communicator whose heartfelt updates on Twitter are shaping global views about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky’s gripping videoconference with leaders of the European Union reportedly left many participants teary-eyed. Zelensky’s passionate pleas hardened the resolve of previously reluctant countries — such as Germany — to move forward with crushing financial sanctions against Russia. And his candid admission that his call might be the last time any of them saw him alive hit home with force.

In part due to Zelensky’s actions, Europe has demonstrated the greatest show of unity in decades. Countries across the continent have collectively enacted the most far-reaching sanctions in history, as a direct result of Zelensky’s candid pleas to help his countrymen uphold democracy.

In other words, policy is being shaped in real time during a global crisis as the result of Zelensky’s effective and authentic crisis communications.

That power of authenticity was on full display during the call with Europe’s leaders when Zelensky explained that he is Russia’s “target number one.” His genuine ability to stir empathy has mobilized European leaders with unprecedented support to Ukraine. And his emotional pleas have ratcheted up opposition to Putin and his invasion, underscoring the importance of effective communications in times of crisis.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proven another gifted communicator, who has skillfully employed powerful on-camera imagery. During TV interviews broadcast around the world, Poroshenko displayed a Kalashnikov assault rifle while discussing the need for more weaponry, while wearing a beige bulletproof vest. The eloquence of this gray-haired senior statesman — Zelensky’s political nemesis — combined with the harsh imagery of urban warfare, has also helped stir compassion worldwide… for a Ukraine united against the Russian invasion.

Much has been said in the past about the cunning of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Zelensky’s impressive leadership, undeniable emotional intelligence and outstanding communications skills have drawn a sharp contrast with the ludicrous disinformation campaign emanating from the Kremlin.

In a world of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” Zelensky continues masterfully to debunk Russia’s narrative. Russia’s PR machine also has done itself no favors with often incoherent or absurd attempts to justify the use of force against a neighboring democracy. How can you credibly claim to “de-Nazify” a country with a Jewish president who lost family in the Holocaust and whose grandfather fought the Nazis in the second World War? 

The current conflict has also seen the U.S. employ a fascinating and new communications tactic, “pre-debunking” Russian lies and exposing them before Putin could actually even utter them publicly. This oft-repeated practice of releasing classified intelligence to pre-empt Russia in the run-up to the invasion proved a clever way to hamstring the dictator. It undermined the credibility of several pretexts that intelligence indicated Putin was prepared to employ as a way to justify the actions of his troops. 

Exceptional communication skills in an arena of information warfare has emerged as one of the hallmarks of this conflict. Ukraine’s leaders and the powerful testimonials from fearless civilians forced to take up arms in defense of their nation have inspired the global public.

In fact, the authenticity contained in the homemade reporting by Zelensky and his countrymen has made it impossible for the world to ignore the plight of Ukraine’s citizens and has spurred the world to action in a way that was unthinkable just weeks ago.

Evan Nierman is CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and author of “Crisis Averted.”

Tags authenticity crisis communications Leadership Persuasion Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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