Winning The Ukraine Narrative
How Zelenskyy Mobilized Global Public Opinion
Like many of you, I have been riveted to news coverage of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
I have watched in horror and anger as the civilized mask of authoritarianism has slipped off to reveal its true ugly, brutal, and inhumane nature. I have watched in awe and inspiration at the at the moving courage of the Ukrainian people defending their country, freedom, and democracy against a real-life tyrant.
And, as a communications professional, I have watched in amazement at how in the span of a mere handful of days global public opinion has been focused nearly universally behind Ukraine and against Russia.
How Did The World Turn So Quickly & Decisively Against Vladimir Putin?
Let's address the elephant in the room. It feels different this time around and we cannot talk about the narrative in Ukraine without wondering why the world didn't seem to care as much in Grozny or Syria to turn en masse against Vladimir Putin. Many have observed reasons for this. For today, I want to focus on one big one.
What those wars lacked was a singular storyteller and a clear, orchestrated communication effort.
Through my professional lens, the most powerful element driving global opinion against Putin is that the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine is a story all human beings innately understand. The story harnesses elements human beings are hardwired to recognize and pay attention to.
Carl Jung was the most famous thinker to recognize the recurrence through history of consistently recognizable characters within stories, art, myths, religions and dreams. We marketers might call them personas. Jung called them archetypes and he theorized evolution has embedded them in humanity's "collective unconscious." And this is why we can so readily recognize archetypes when they present themselves.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been called the "Jewish Churchill." The foundation of the comparison is based on legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow's observation that Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. What the two figures share is their skill at telling a story and a historical moment as leaders of a nation under siege.
The world is rightly focused on Zelenskyy's admirable performance as the leader of his country. He is the storyteller of this crisis and he's got the world's rapt attention. Zelenskyy's storytelling skills should not be surprising, given that he rose to political leadership as an actor.
The Storyteller is, in fact, an archetype, characterized by charisma and a talent for dramatic expression, keen insight, empathy, compassion, and most importantly in this context, an intuitive understanding of the world.
The Archetypal Plot
Just as there are the archetypal characters Jung recognized, there are archetypal storylines as well. These are most clearly articulated in Christopher Booker's superb book, The Seven Basic Plots.
The stage was set by President Joe Biden's drip, drip, drip disclosures of intelligence exposing Putin's aims, which had the effect in the public mind of painting the Russian president as the classic Ruler archetype. Archetypes have both light and dark characteristics. The Ruler archetype's light characteristics are power, confidence, and leadership but its dark characteristics include arrogance and authoritarianism.
The villain has been established.
Putin's invasion of Ukraine began the basic Overcoming The Monster plotline familiar to anyone who has seen a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie. This plot typically features a seemingly weak and immature protagonist who sets out on his journey with little chance of success (think Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins). The first scene featuring Luke Skywalker portrays him as a whiny teenager and Frodo Baggins, as a Hobbit, is literally the size of a child.
Perceptions of Zelenskyy were not far from this characterization at the beginning of this conflict. Given his past profession, he was even viewed as the Clown archetype, characterized by his ability to create fun and make people laugh but at risk of not being taken seriously. Remember all the early discussion about whether he was in over his head?
But over the course of the conflict, Zelenskyy has transformed in the public eye from a Clown to the Everyman archetype (characterized by strength of character, faithfulness, usefulness and resourcefulness). Recording selfies and speaking in a conversational tone on social media is a hallmark of Everyman behavior.
As the invasion has progressed, Zelenskyy has further transformed into the Hero archetype, characterized by strength, stamina, courage, and transformation. When the United States offered to evacuate Zelenskyy from Kyiv, Zelenskyy responded by saying "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride."
This real-life Overcoming The Monster story also includes other familiar archetypes that advance the plot, maintain attention to the story, and deepen the public's investment in its outcome.
The Warrior archetype emerged when Russian forces captured Snake Island, where Ukrainian officials said that all thirteen border guards were killed by arms fire from a Russian warship, but not before telling the Russians where to go. An audio recording revealed the last words Ukrainian soldiers said to the Russian warship.
The Warrior archetype is characterized by valor, fortitude and fearlessness.
Stories are about transformation. That is why Zelenskyy's transformation is so compelling.
Likewise, we have seen the transformation of the Ukrainian citizenry from the Citizen archetype (characterized by stewardship, altruism, and accountability) into the Warrior archetype.
The Caregiver archetype (characterized by compassion, patience and empathy) emerges in the form of the nation's mothers shepherding the children to safety.
The Rescuer archetype (characterized by honor, bravery, strength and quick reflexes) has been illustrated by doctors and nurses who stayed put to care for the wounded.
Throughout the invasion, the journalists have played the role of the Translator archetype, characterized by their skill as an intuitive communicator, and the ability to identify patterns and connect dots to reveal meaning. But the role of the Translator was perhaps most powerfully played by a literal translator whose emotions got the best of him as he translated Zelenskyy's speech before the European Parliament.
A common storytelling tactic is to break a type, which surprises the audience because their expectations are abruptly contradicted. When you break type, you maintain the attention of your audience because they are surprised and want to know why their expectations were contradicted.
The evolution of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from Clown to Everyman to Hero might be considered a breaking of type but we experienced it as an evolution.
There are, however, examples of a true breaking of type where our expectations are abruptly contradicted.
The Armed Beauty Queen
Though it has since been revealed that she was holding an Airsoft weapon, former Miss Ukraine's post holding what appeared to be an actual gun did the trick in breaking type of beauty queen to female warrior.
This contradicts two types at the same time.
One type is the Ukrainian defender who you would expect to act with hostility toward the captured Russian soldier but instead lays her hands on the soldier in a gesture of comfort. The other type that is broken is the Russian invader turns out to simply be a scared, hungry kid who breaks down after hearing from his mother.
Another storytelling tactic is the illustration of contrasts.
The early hook of this story was the contrast between Putin's lies and the rebuttal truths of American intelligence.
As the crisis has unfolded, we've seen the contrast between the ideologies of authoritarianism and freedom, as Russian security forces arrest war protesters while Ukrainians stand and fight for freedom.
We see the openness and intimacy of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is willing to field questions from world journalists during a press conference versus the long tables and public silence of Putin.
The contrast is easy because the one archetype that has not evolved or changed, Putin's Ruler archetype, only reinforces all of the dark qualities that make him such a menacing character in this story.
Controlling The Storyline
This, of course, is much more profound than an academic discussion of story dynamics. But controlling the story also happens to be an essential element in conquering this evil that has been visited upon the world.
There are two explanations for why Ukraine has been able to dominate the storyline to date:
- Zelenskyy simply has a deep, intuitive understanding of how to harness public opinion, or
- This has been an orchestrated communications effort among Ukraine, NATO and the United States.
It is easier to believe it is the former but if it is the latter, that is an amazing effort.
Regardless of who can claim credit, a deep understanding of the role of archetypes and plot will be crucial to bringing this global crisis to a safe and successful conclusion by managing public opinion.