Editor’s note: Billy Warden is a writer, marketing exec and multimedia producer based in the Research Triangle, where he co-founded the p.r. agency GBW Strategies. He writes a column exclusively for WRAL TechWire. His posts appear on Mondays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – What can folks fortunate enough NOT to be involved in a horrific war can learn from the reigning Greatest Communicator in the World?
The communicator in question is, of course, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.
In December 2021, his approval rating amongst his fellow Ukrainians was 31 percent. Today, following Russia’s rampage, he commands standing ovations in foreign capitals and resounding support throughout the social metaverse. Just minutes ago, I heard a normally jaded political pundit call him the world’s “greatest leader since Churchill.”
The bludgeoning of Ukraine is horrendous. Nothing to be flip about. And, just as true, Zelenskyy has mastered the media to hammer all that home in a way that all the free world’s able reporting crews probably could not.
The former entertainer’s ‘information war’ is both specific to this blood curdling moment and, assessed at a certain angle, instructive:
Stories without a focus are a mess of competing plotlines. Every tale needs a hero, and every hero needs a goal.
Here, Zelenskyy is our way of experiencing a world event. Like Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” or Sigourney Weaver in her “Alien” movies. All eyes are focused on the portagonist, and through him/her, we see the bombings and suffering, experience the fear and rage.
Most times, drawing attention to oneself in the middle of a crisis is itself disastrous. As when the CEO of BP during the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon explosion griped, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Zelenskyy’s circumstances are much different. Obviously, the differences between an unprovoked invasion and a corporate fiasco are legion.
But the point is that stories need a protagonist. Confronted with an overwhelming amount of information and opinions, audiences need someone to identify with – a hero. In product marketing, the hero is usually the consumer/user. In politics, the hero is often a constituent or selfless public servant. A hero makes a narrative possible, and narratives stick with us.
Where there is a platform, there is Zelenskyy. Under duress, he nonetheless tries to meet the audience where they are – and then to deliver a gripping message.
Central to the success of his campaign are the simple short videos of him in the streets of Kiev.
The unadorned format lands as authentic. As does the tone – determined and defiant. The video he played in his address to Congress was more produced, but, with its powerful imagery, no less effective.
Zelenskky uses all the comms tools at his disposal, including his training as a comedian and actor. New York Times book critic Dwight Garner saluted Zellenskyy’s “buoyancy” vs. dour “one note Putin.” In other words, tone is also a tool, and if you have the potential to differentiate by speaking to audiences in a fresh way – take it.
As he digitally darts around the globe speaking to policy makers, Zelenskyy is quick to situate his country’s trauma in the cultural iconography of his audience. To Congress, he evoked 9/11, Pearl Harbor and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. To Britain’s Parliament, he quoted Shakespeare. To German legislators, he evoked the Berlin Wall.
He makes his story OUR story – history repeating, rhyming and calling to us for action.
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