Volodymyr Zelensky is a figure we’ve all come to know quite well. Whether he’s speaking in front of the U.N., or at the Grammys, there is perhaps no more consistent public figure on the global stage. He has been consistently lauded both for the moving power of his oration on the world stage, as well as the confidence he instills in his own people, as they struggle against oppression. It is therefore worth analyzing and evaluating his communication from a public relations perspective.
One of the first principles we learn in the field of communications, as we start to wrangle with fundamentals, relates to audience and intent, i.e., who are you saying this for, and why are you saying it? If you don’t know who you are trying to reach, you can’t research how to reach them. And if you don’t know why you’re saying it, then why say it at all? The best communicators know precisely what they are trying to say, and exactly who the message is for, even if it is not to whom they are directly communicating.
This focus brings us back to President Zelensky. He has a messaging task no professional communicator would relish. He needs to say one thing, and have it mean different things and achieve different goals, for several audiences. This is true nearly every time he makes a public comment, but let’s examine one instance where his words, normally heard by governments around the world, also made their way to everyday citizens.
The People of Russia
Let’s get the idiomatic context out of the way first. “To see Paris and die” is a phrase that is well known to Russian-speaking audiences. Historian Eleonory Gilburd defines it as “the ultimate fulfillment of life’s aspirations, with nothing else left to experience.” It is an evocative, instantly recognizable cultural shorthand for reaching the apex of one’s life.
Zelensky morphed that famous phrase, twisting it to resonate with western audiences and encourage his own people, but also twist like a knife in the hearts of Russian citizens. A single line from a speech gaining traction on multiple sites logically means that this small bit of information is more likely to penetrate Russian censorship. Zelensky’s speech would of course be blocked, but if it is picked up by dozens of smaller news sites and content aggregators, which then funnel it onto social media platforms, the message can break through. The single line for the Russian people says multiple things. First, it shows the caliber of the soldiers: too poor to afford a toilet, too uneducated to understand that stealing a toilet won’t give their home indoor plumbing. The words sap morale, seeing one’s countrymen in such a pitiable state. Furthermore, there is the knowledge that the rest of the world is seeing these embarrassing acts.
This line from Zelensky’s speech was widely trafficked, as he likely knew it would be. The full speech was for Ukrainians. The pull quote was for Western headlines, and then to pass through the Russian population like a virus. Zelensky, displaying message mastery, said the same thing to three different audiences and had it mean three different things. We’ve covered how Russians were likely affected, so let us examine the remaining major audiences.
The Western World
The eyes of the world are on Ukraine, but even in times of conflict, one must be mindful of people’s attention spans. Nearly 60% of people share links based on headlines, without ever even reading the article. The headline is what will be shared, but the headline must be enough. Without fully understanding the cultural context, any reader can still appreciate the desperation of someone stealing a toilet, an item that only has value after installation and is not likely to survive an arduous journey back home. This headline sends one of two messages:: Either the image of the Russian soldier is tainted as a thief, or is reduced to a fool. Both build sympathy for Ukraine, while creating disdain for the Russian government and damaging Russia’s reputation.
The People of Ukraine
For this principal audience, the buy-in can be assumed to be much higher than average. After all, this is a leader speaking to his people during a time of war. His words matter not only emotionally or spiritually, but tactically. Without hyperbole, Zelensky’s messaging could affect whether they live or die. The people look not only to the message but to less direct or tangible qualities of communication: the state of his clothes, the redness of his eyes, the sallowness of his skin, and the timbre of his voice. His messaging must convey hope, resolve, confidence, bravery, and humanity. For that, let’s examine the full statement from April 22, 2022.
“You know they used to talk about their biggest dream: to see Paris and die. And their behavior is now just shocking. Because their dream now is to steal the toilet and die”
–April 22, 2022, referring to the acts of Russian soldiers
In English, it is transcribed and translated at 1,113 words. He delivers it in his now familiar brown jacket. He sits at a bare white table in a simple black chair, in a dark room, the only real color the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, which digitally ripples behind him on a projector screen. He wears no makeup, and while not unkempt, he does not look very recently groomed. He speaks directly to the camera, but his comments are not off the cuff. His subtle eye movements betray a teleprompter, or much more likely, a whiteboard or sheets of paper held up by an assistant. He is matter-of-fact, talking proudly of Ukraine’s successes both militarily and logistically, and passionately about the heroics of soldiers, the memorials to the dead, and the inevitable coming victory. Zelensky’s speeches, as well as the actions of the heroic Ukrainian people and military, are the foundation on which rests the country’s resolve.
He portrays the Russian soldiers, with his line about their “dream,” as pathetic, worthy of pity, and fatalistic. He is turning Putin’s own strategy, of dehumanizing the Ukrainian people by referring to them as Nazis, against him. The Russian soldiers are here portrayed as almost underdogs against how he describes the character and resolve of the Ukrainian military.
I can’t speak for the soldiers, but I feel pretty inspired.
– By Benjamin George
M.S. in Corporate and Organizational Communication CPS’22