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Crisis Communication: A Lesson from  Zelensky’s Tactic in Information War

By Kabir Abdulsalam

The era of fighting wars with stick and stones has since become history. Modern warfare is characterized by sophisticated weapons and deployment of communication strategies.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a social commentator recently described  Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as “Now he is a Churchill-like figure”  referring to the British prime minister who led the UK during World War II.

Zelenskyy, an entertainer, who turned President of Ukraine has strategically utilized the advent of modern media for its information warfare that has strategically provided a foundation to rally his citizens.

Russia, North Korea and Germany’s WWII triumph has gone. During the Gulf war when Iraq forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world witnessed televised war-shot, many television viewers saw, in real-time, international conflict displayed for the first time via CNN.

Today, war is seen through social media and users’ accounts.  Many may recall Twitter’s role during the Arab Spring uprising, in 2011, the EndSars protest in Nigeria, in 2020, and many more conflicts in the world.

A political commentator, Peter Singer, narrates that “Over a very short period, a handful of tech geeks have become among the most powerful figures in all of politics and war.”

With the upgrade in modern technologies, cameras, and other video editing apps have seen the world glimpsing first-person accounts of war in real-time from Ukrainian citizens, such as bombings, and interactions with soldiers.

Certainly, the early-stage victory in the information space has benefited Ukraine, this consequently shows harsh sanctions on Russia by many world leaders, international bodies and  financial institutions.

In another clime several tech companies have restricted Russia’s access, selling its propagandist ideology,  such as  Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have proven invaluable in helping spread awareness of what is happening in Ukraine.

An international news platform, CNBC reported that Russia had underestimated Ukraine’s resilience, in the information sphere, its disinformation, and propaganda tactics which will likely continue to target people in both countries should the war continue. For PR and communication lenses, I admire the team’s resilience in deploring such quality strategies to canvases and winning the information war against the giant Russian.

Zelenskyy’s PR strategy that gets Result

At the initial stages of the war, President Zelenskyy, a one time actor and comedian, looked into the camera and delivered a clear and compelling message: “I am here. We will not lay down any weapons”.

The selfie-style video posted on Feb. 25, 2022,  gained 3 million views within an hour – part of an effort to mobilize international opinion against the Russian invasion of his country.

Barely a few hours after the video was released, at late hour same day, he also filmed a similar video after he was accused by Russian propagandists that he had fled the country. The video  shows  Zelenskyy and his cabinet standing in front of streetlights with the president speaking directly into the camera without teleprompters or any official paraphernalia insight.

Communicate  with the audience

As Russians understand the  Ukrainian push of communication, the nation’s TV Tower and the satellite were targeted by the Russian forces.  Thereafter, Zelenskyy was seen on a video calling other European leaders, most of whom had not yet agreed to help. That seems to have garnered the most attention within hours. The likes of  Sweden, Finland, Germany, and other EU countries reversed a decades-long policy.

In crisis communication, understanding your audience is an essential tool to get the message to your them. Zelensky knows the world is watching,  he talks to Ukrainians as he knows he’s talking to an international audience to invoke emotions from this message.

The message

Zelensky has been seen in several images to convey his messages as memorable, repeatable, and quotable by the media. Notable  includes:

“When you attack us, it will be our faces you see, not our backs.”
“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“It’s not about I want to talk with Putin, I think I have to talk with Putin. The world has to talk with Putin because there are no other ways to stop this war.”

“If we win, and I’m sure we’ll win, this will be a victory for the whole democratic world.”

“There is nothing that could explain why the kindergartens and civilian infrastructure are being shelled.”

“This will be the victory of our freedom. This will be the victory of light over darkness, of freedom over slavery.”

“This night will be very difficult, and the enemy will use all available forces to break the resistance of Ukrainians…the fate of Ukraine is being decided right now.”

The source creating impact

He also used several pictures to communicate his messages to his citizens. Zelenskyy was seen from bunkers with fellow soldiers. The  images show him participating shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines. He delivers impassioned, transparent, authentic speeches encouraging citizens and asking for support.

They also started releasing quick-fire information about the wins they were getting on the battlefield.

Muyiwa Babarinde, a strategic communicator summed these as three-pronged effect; “It improved the morale of Ukrainian fighters, many of whom are civilians, fighting to save their homes, It leads to doubt on the Russian side, especially with soldiers not knowing why they were invading Ukraine; It bought Ukraine more time to get support from the west”.

Consequently, his messages have been exceptionally potent in catalyzing public opinion due to the impact they had on the troops and his citizens. He used every tool at his disposal to reduce a political story to a personal one, leverage communications to gain a slight upper hand in the fight for their lives.

Kabir Abdulsalam write ín from Wuye District, Abuja.

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