George Melnyk is a professor emeritus of communication, media and film at the University of Calgary.
During the course of the war in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has won the attention of the world as he speaks almost daily to world leaders and parliaments. He projects sincerity, intensity and a genuine love for his country and people. His opponent, Russian President Vladimir Putin, projects a different kind of image. The photos of him that are released show him distant and alone, often seated at a long table with his one or two visitors at the far end.
The two men’s different style of messaging is a reflection of their own status in their respective countries (an autocrat in Russia and an elected president in Ukraine). Their choices on how they want to project a war image impact their reception in the West. Mr. Zelensky wants to convey the urgency and suffering of a country under bombardment, while Mr. Putin wants to convey a sense of normalcy. His image is meant to tell his Russian audience that everything is okay, nothing has changed. Russia remains great and will soon be greater.
There are four key factors that influence how a public reacts to a political leader’s media image. The first is what they say, the second is how they say it, the third is their appearance (including attire) and the final one is the context for their personal image.
Mr. Zelensky’s video speeches are usually emotionally charged pleas to the outside world or morale-boosting pep-talks to his fellow citizens. They are sent out in pre-recorded videos. When he addressed the Canadian Parliament in mid-March, he used words such as “aspiration” and “hope.” When he gave one of his nightly video addresses to the Ukrainian nation toward the end of March, he used words like “peace” and “our future.”
When Mr. Putin addressed his people on the eve of the invasion, he used words such as “irresponsible,” “cynical deception” and “blackmail.” While Mr. Putin descends into name-calling (including ”Nazis” and “scum”), Mr. Zelensky takes the high road.
Mr. Zelensky speaks with a passionate intensity that is captivating to viewers. There is nothing in the image on the screen to distract from our eye contact with his face. His speeches get standing ovations from parliamentarians. In contrast, Mr. Putin’s televised addresses to Russians are conventionally structured and clearly scripted. His only authentic emotion seems to be sarcastic anger.
What the leaders wear and how they project their appearance is also telling. Mr. Zelensky has adopted the khaki-coloured clothing of a soldier and projects the image of an ascetic. When Mr. Putin appears on television, he continues to wear a suit and tie befitting a leader in control. When he spoke to a Moscow rally recently, he changed to a white turtleneck and dark parka that made him look like a wealthy oligarch.
To Western audiences, Mr. Zelensky has the appeal of a youthful and intense 44-year-old. Mr. Putin, on the other hand, has grown jowly at the age of 69. His mature appearance is suited to the image of a grand ruler who knows best. This may be reassuring to Russian audiences, who are accustomed to and dependent on state media, but it is unappealing to non-Russian audiences.
Finally, the backdrops for their public addresses or meetings offer clues to the subtexts in their messaging. Mr. Zelensky has no other prop than perhaps a Ukrainian flag beside him and a blank wall behind. The scene is almost as empty as a monk’s cell. In contrast, Mr. Putin often has the accoutrements of power in his images, including ministers of his government appearing in little squares on a monitor screen at the end of a majestic table.
The simplicity conveyed by Mr. Zelensky’s videos add to his appeal. They are tenuous, fragile and unadorned, while Mr. Putin’s realm is off-putting because of its association with power, wealth and status. Mr. Zelensky plays the perfect David, making Mr. Putin the quintessential Goliath. Western audiences prefer underdogs.
In the midst of war, does image really matter? It does when it raises morale, wins friends, influences other leaders and offers hope to the suffering. It can even change the military situation on the ground against impossible odds. Looking back at all the presidents of Ukraine over the past 20 years, not one of them had the charisma or capacity to galvanize a nation the way Mr. Zelensky has. The former television actor has become a great political communicator.
Mr. Putin may have won the minds of many Russians, but Mr. Zelensky has won the hearts of the world. His media-savvy performances may very well have saved his country from extinction.
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