• Monday, June 24, 2024
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Strategic communication in times of war: Lessons from Ukraine’s masterful control of its own narrative

China landslide toll rises to 43

One of my favorite things to do is watch documentaries. I believe there are lessons for the future in the past. I remember watching a couple of montages, films and interviews on World War 2 (WW2) last year, and the world must never go through something of that scale anymore. It was a tragic event of epic proportions. With nuclear weapons now present in the armory of several nations, it is more important that things don’t escalate into a WW3.

Ukrainain President: Volodymry Zelenskyy

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters the second week, I have been following Ukraine’s communication strategy, and it has been impressive.
They may or may not win the war, but they have given themselves a fighting chance with a solid ‘Strategic Communications’ framework that has provided a foundation to rally her citizens, western partners and the world at large to Ukraine’s cause.
When people think of wars, they mostly think about the fighting and loss of lives, but there is a soft part that plays a vital role as well: Communications. It is an important cog in the wheel of military operations.
Russia, North Korea and WW2 Germany have had some of the best propaganda machines in history.
But Ukraine and its President have been so impressive with the way they have handled the war so far. As a Communications Specialist, I can only admire the team delivering such quality in a chaotic uncertain workplace. They have been brilliant.

Communication Material to Boost Ukrainain Army Morale by Ukraine.

To understand the importance of storytelling/comms during warfare, I will share the story of Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment in Germany, 1933.

This man was one of the most influential people in building the ‘Adolf Hitler’ brand, he brainwashed a nation to believe they were fighting the total war. He also used stories to flip the script, and put pressure on England. English Air Force fleet had accidentally bombed a residential area during the war, he leaked the pictures of the destruction to press, and pulled the strings to turn public opinion against one of the most important allied partners.

What does this have to do with comms?
There is a strategy called ‘Blitzkreig’. Germany used it effectively in WW2 to take over territories in the shortest time possible. You hit the enemy as fast and hard as you can, without allowing them time to recover.

We use this in Brand Marketing as well, when a challenger brand is looking to take market share from a category leader as fast as possible.
Ukraine leveraged on Comms Blitzkrieg to set the narrative they wanted immediately the war started. How have they done this?
Narrative Control
From the start Ukraine quickly (and rightly framed) the war as a David vs Goliath situation. Russia is a bigger country with a bigger army. But people root for the underdog, we all do, every single time. Check all the movies you have seen this year, you rooted for the actor that had the odds stacked against them. Welcome to pop culture meets real world.

It also helps that their cry for help were legitimate. Their sovereignty was being threatened by a neighbor. They took control of their narrative, told their truth, and got the support of the whole world.

Invoke Nationalistic Emotions
The Ukrainian government and army released pictures (like the one below) to rally the nationalistic spirits of Ukrainians and gain sympathy all over the world.

They also started releasing quick-fire information about the wins they were getting on the battlefield. These had a three-pronged effect
i)It improved the morale of Ukrainian fighters, many of whom are civilians, fighting to save their homes
ii)It leads to doubt on the Russian side especially with soldiers not knowing why they were invading Ukraine
iii)It bought Ukraine more time to get support from the west.

Read also: COVID-19 supply unaffected by Russia-Ukraine war – WHO

The Soft President with a Lion’s Heart
The presidency/his comms team seeded his family picture along with this iconic quote from his inauguration 2 years ago.
‘’I do not want my picture in your offices; the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kid’s photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision’’

What this does is humanize him further, in a time when he needs all the help he can get for his country.
These compelling stories were being released as fast as possible. And once a perception was formed, they knew they could leverage on that.

President Zelenski has also been updating his social media pages multiple times during the day sharing updates on the war.
The same way Nigerian youths used Twitter as a tool to air their grievances against SARS, he has also been doing the same to garner support for his country.

The Putin/Hitler Association.
In politics, in communications, in wartimes, in life, associations are key.
That’s why Rolex spends millions to be the official timekeeper for the slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon and Us Open)
When you associate a brand with a specific term or image, the audience will run with that image.

In the Times cover, they added a bold picture of Putin, and added a mustache to the mid-section of the image. This mustache is symbolic as it represents one of the most devilish persons to ever walk on earth (Adolf Hitler)
Even without looking at the facts, with that association, the Putin image has taken a major hit. And in 100 years, he will be referred to as the ‘21st Century Hitler: The man who broke the peace’
These are soft blows, but they all pile up to influence warfare as well.

Reverse Psychology Tactics
Ukraine also launched a website for Russian families to know the status of their soldier children In case they had been killed or imprisoned on the battlefield.

https://www.firstpost.com/world/ukraine-launches-website-200rf-com-to-find-fallen-russian-soldiers-what-you-need-to-know-10416451.html

This is to whip public sentiments in Russia, and prompt protests by families who want the war to stop. It is also an act of empathy and mercy to let people know if they have lost someone, and start healing – Strategic communication at its finest.
Russia is bigger than Ukraine, and if the latter is to win the war and retain her country, it knows it has to be creative throughout the war. And the Ukrainians have shown uncommon bravery even in the face of potential annihilation.

Bringing It Together
Within 48hours of the war, Russia floated the rumor that Ukraine’s President had fled the capital, Kviy along with cabinet members.
To counter this propaganda, President Volodymry Zelenskyy released a video alongside other top government officials recorded on the streets of Kviy.

He was seen saying repeatedly ‘’We are here’’ Here with you. For you. Fighting alongside you for the country, till the end.
This speech is an epitome of bravery and servant leadership. It encapsulates all the promises leaders give when they campaign for votes, but rarely keep to. But here was a leader taking a stand to the principles he holds dear, at a time of crisis. A critical time in history.
Now you can’t quantify the impact this speech had on the troops, but you can be sure that the next day, they fought like people with everything to lose, they must have fought like people trying to maintain the honor of their homes.

The war is still ongoing, with a lot of losses being suffered on both ends, however this is the story of how Ukraine leveraged on comms to gain a slight upper hand in the fight for their lives.
Ukrainians said from the very beginning: ‘’This is our home. We are here’’ and so far, they are standing firm, right where they belong: home.

Piece Written by

Muyiwa Babarinde
Muyiwa is a Marketing Communications Specialist with 6+ years’ experience in Corporate Communications, Reputation and Strategic Communication for brands like Facebook, Unilever, Nigerian Breweries, Uber, Apple amongst others. He is currently the Head of Marketing & Growth at Savyt, a fintech start-up helping drive financial inclusion by advocating for a savings and investment culture among Nigerians. He is a member of World Economic Forum, Global Shapers Community, Lagos Hub. He is based in Lagos, Nigeria.