It was actually apparent from the beginning of Putin’s senseless and immoral war in Ukraine, but the clincher for me was watching video from both Russia and Ukraine on Victory Day—when both countries have historically commemorated defeat of the Nazi war machine in World War II. Like others, I had been inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s courageous engagement with the world through the media. He was an inspiration. From hospital wards to undisclosed bunkers, Zelensky kept up a daily presence on both social media and in traditional outlets.
But the striking contrast between images that emerged from Russia and Ukraine on May 9 drove home the ingenious nature of the Ukrainian President and his advisors’ approach to the media.
There was Moscow’s Red Square—filled with countless soldiers marching in lock-step to show strength and stability to the Russian populace while presenting the hard edge of intimidation to citizens in Ukraine, Europe, the United States and around the world. Ranks of soldiers were followed by lines of heavily armored vehicles rolling menacingly past grandstands filled with rabidly patriotic Russians.
Cut to Kyiv. The camera focuses on a single person, the nation’s President, walking down an empty street in the capital. The setting itself was striking: two months earlier, it was widely assumed that soon the city would fall to an overwhelming Russian onslaught. Bombs exploded nightly and the wail of air raid sirens punctuated fleeting movements and nervous conversations. It was only a matter of time, it was thought, before the city would fall. And yet, on “Victory Day,” Zelensky earnestly strode down a quiet, orderly street. No panic. No urgency.
It was a brilliant strategy. Ukraine cannot match Russia’s massive power; so instead, feature just the opposite—a single individual—no guns, no flags, no pomp and circumstance. Just President Zelensky walking by himself down the street (notice how the camera follows his movement, as nothing distracts the viewer from focusing on Zelensky’s determined expression to represent his besieged country on this important date in European history).
George Melnyk, writing in the Globe and Mail, says, “Mr. Zelensky speaks with a passionate intensity that is captivating to viewers. There is nothing in the image on the screen to distract from our eye contact with his face…He projects sincerity, intensity and a genuine love for his country and people. His opponent, Russian President Vladimir Putin, projects a different kind of image. The photos of him that are released show him distant and alone, often seated at a long table with his one or two visitors at the far end. Contrast this with Zelensky, who’s always one touch away on your phone. You see him talking to soldiers, visiting hospitals, directly appealing to the world. His message is one of collaboration, shared goals, and team-building.”
Zelensky is not only providing a role model for a war-time leader, according to Alen Bubich in Fortune, “he is also delivering a master class in crisis communications…[Putin] is a classic old-school manager: dour, stiff, and remote. He shows no emotion. He shares no personal details. It’s hard to cheer for someone you know nothing about.
“Zelensky, by comparison, casts himself as an open book. In the age of social media, it’s a losing proposition to keep the personal divorced from the professional. Zelensky spent his life as an actor. Putin plays the perfect villain. However, the Ukrainian president is showing how a modern leader can rally others to his side through a simple message of humanity and shared mission—and savvy in communicating that to the world.”
Melnyk asks a rhetorical question and then offers an answer that is being borne out day after day on the ground in Ukraine: “In the midst of war, does image really matter? It does when it raises morale, wins friends, influences other leaders and offers hope to the suffering. It can even change the military situation on the ground against impossible odds.”