Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night was a masterclass in crisis communication for corporate executives. His televised remarks provides several lessons business leaders should remember when telling their side of the story about a business crisis.
Communication and leadership experts weighed-in with their insights and observations about what Zelensky said and how he said it.
Deliver Your Message In Person
“President Zelensky’s speech to Congress reminds us foremost how important it is for business leaders to be physically present in times of crisis,” Moshe Cohen, who teaches leadership, negotiation, organizational behavior and mediation at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, said via email.
“While he could have delivered the same message electronically or by video, his choice to come to Washington demonstrated commitment, created connection, and increased alignment to his cause. During a crisis, people can feel anxious or lost, and the leader’s physical presence provides them with direction, stability, and hope,” he observed.
Know Your Audience
Zelensky’s speech “demonstrates how important it is for leaders to know their audience and speak with them rather than at them,” Cohen noted.
“Just as Zelensky’s references to our shared values, narratives, and history as well as his use of powerful imagery, made his words resonate with us, business leaders can use their organizations’ core values and mission to reassure their people and guide them through crises,” he concluded.
“In order to persuade others to join in your cause, you must first capture their attention,,” Josh Wilson, a senior publicist with Otter PR, said via email.
“One of the most powerful parts of his speech was when he compared American troops fighting to hold their lines against Hitler on Christmas of 1944 with the Ukrainian troops who will be fighting against Putin on Christmas this year. This undoubtedly caught the attention of many Americans, many of whom had loved ones that served during WW II,” he observed.
Explain What’s At Stake
“This battle is not only for the territory, for this or another part of Europe,” Zelensky told Congress. “The battle is not only for the life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation which Russia attempts to conquer. This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren.”
Choose Your Words Carefully
“Zelensky is skilled at making his crisis communication relatable by sharing detailed accounts of the difficulties that his fellow Ukrainians are facing, particularly during the holiday season,” Jordan McAuley, founder of Celebrity/PR, said via email.
He highlighted the “contrast between the challenges Ukrainians are facing and the more comfortable lives of Americans. The saying goes that people don’t remember what you said; they remember how you made them feel. Zelensky effectively uses this strategy to connect with his audience and leave a lasting impression,” McCauley pointed out.
“Another lesson that others can learn from Zelensky’s speech is the importance of showing gratitude,” Wilson of Otter PR observed.
“He didn’t just thank members of Congress for their support of Ukraine but rather sent a loud and clear thank you to every American that was watching at home. In [a] crisis, people want to feel heard and acknowledged. In this area, Zelensky gets an A+.”
Convey A Sense Of Urgency
Zelensky told Congress that “Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender. So, so, here the front line, the tyranny which has no lack of cruelty against the lives of free people—and your support is crucial, not just to stand in such [a] fight but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield.”
Directly Address Concerns
“When Zelensky stated that ‘your money is not charity. It’s an investment in global security and democracy,’ he not only confirmed Ukraine’s view of America as a true partner but also subtly addressed lingering Republican skepticism of continued financial backing of Ukraine,” Olga Orda, founder and CEO of PR agency Hypemachine.
The Ukraine president obviously wanted to “make it clear that financial support of Ukraine is much more than supporting one country: it’s symbolic of the world’s front line defense against Russia attacking other neighboring countries and starting an even larger global conflict,” Orda commented.
Zelensky compared “Russians to Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. The Nazi comparison is common among many politicians as a persuasive argument in all kinds of issues, perhaps way too common nowadays, but they use it because it works in driving an emotional component,” Baruch Labunski, CEO of Rank Secure, observed via email.
“The Ukrainian president [employed] another well-used but effective tactic in his speech. He gave a battlefield flag to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,” Labunski noted. “Presenting a flag from frontline soldiers [offered] another emotional connection, a way to prove the war is real, and a display of gratitude. It shows Congress that Ukrainians are fighting.”
Military Green Activewear
Zelesnky “didn’t wear a suit and tie; he wore military green activewear,” Michelle Burson, president of MarComm, a marketing and communications agency, said via email.
“He didn’t wear a suit out of principle. He hasn’t worn one since the war started. He’s also not wearing a formal military uniform, decorations, or insignias. It’s a way to communicate that he’s in the trenches with his people, not a bureaucrat who is above them,” she observed.