Winning presidential elections using social media: a Zelensky case study

Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian. Today, he is the President of Ukraine, without any political background, taking the country by storm. How? By the power of social media.

Picture India, whose denizens are making a big deal of two female MPs posing in front of parliament. Then picture Ukraine, whose denizens just elected a comedian as their new president. Funny - this new world.

Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, made his name on Servant of the People, a comedy programme that you can watch on Netflix in the US. It follows the life of Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, an everyman schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes President and takes on the nation’s oligarchs.

Ukraine’s intelligentsia almost took his candidature as a joke. Until he won the first rounds almost swiftly. During his campaign, and even today, he is blamed for completely lacking a political platform and vision for the country. That didn’t stop ‘Ze the symbol’ from emerging and taking the country by storm.

Using the power of symbols

Two months into his presidency, and he carries on playing on the card of self-sacrificing “servant of the people.” Recently, he has asked the Parliament to sack the foreign and defense ministers and the head of the security service SBU. The move appears interesting because it’s symbolic and in a way, it covers his perceived lack of a structural roadmap for the country. By making such symbolic moves, which are mega popular and desired among the masses, he buys himself extra time to learn fast and on the spot without losing his popularity.

Although his victory caught many off guard, there were some early warnings. One just needs to look at the numbers:

Source: Similar web

Of all the six candidates, Zelensky’s count of traffic coming from social media was disproportionately large. This is a clear sign of the person’s strong brand around his persona and growing popularity.

Refusing to appear on TV duel

There is a massive anti-incumbency mood taking place all around the world. People dislike the old establishment everywhere and that became the most obvious post the 2009 financial crisis, which discovered the glaring income gap between the rich and the poor.

Zelensky understood this and capitalised on it. He refused to play by the rules of the dinosaurs and that has made him even more popular. He shielded himself from a likely attack that would have taken place had he exposed himself directly onto mainstream media, owned by Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. In a swift audacious move, he decided not to appear on the presidential debate, leaving Poroshenko debating an empty seat.

Or maybe he is just trying to avoid making mistakes in front of journalists and experts?

And not only that. He refused to answer questions in front of most any mainstream media in Ukraine. In an open letter, 20 news outlets called on the presidential candidate to stop avoiding journalists ahead of the runoff vote. Do we realise what this means? He actually became President using nothing but social media. He neglected every possible rule from the old book, he didn’t even campaign and held rallies the classical ways. The setup for his rallies resembles a circus scene and his act is a standup show. Why would there be a need for campaigning? “You’re smart people, you know what to do on March 31, right?” he said.

Giving hope rather than plans

Soon before the election campaign, it became clear that this candidate’s political views were very much a work in progress. Yet that didn’t repel Ukrainians from him. Why?

Hope comes before plan.

And you can disseminate hope via social media far easier than plans.

People needed an ideal more than they needed a definite roadmap because the sad reality doesn’t escape the common Ukrainian man – it’s a helluva task to push reforms and bring change. It is not even certain whether people of Ukraine were aware that they were electing a television character, a pseudo-event, rather than Zelensky himself. People projected the image of the fictional president in his movie into the real candidate. This is a remarkable psychological phenomenon. No promises, no disappointments seems to be his ongoing tagline and Ukrainians seem to be perfectly fine with it.

Fighting fire with fire

As soon as it became known that Zelensky is a real treat, a barrage of fake news appeared demeaning him. His campaign manager even pleaded Mark Zuckerberg to open a local office and staff it with local folks who are well introduced with the ground realities of the local political scene.

How did they fight the fake news menace? By posting even more fake news.

His team announced a fake news competition where the best or most creative fake news would be personally decided by Zelensky himself. He became a reptilian. He became Merkel's lover...It turned out he is actually a woman, moreover, the illegitimate sister of Tymoshenko taking revenge on her. The ultimate truth turned out to be that he is the great-grandson of an honorary member of the Rothschilds

A lesson for young campaign managers - if you can’t stop fake news, add more of it even more heavily spiced with humour and satire to dilute the effect of the “original” fake news and sway the attention away. What a masterful stroke.

Zelensky the “Ze”

Memefy yourself and attach a nickname, which can be quickly pasted on a skateboard and became popular among the young and the cool. Does this require further explanation? I’ve already written plenty about “open-sourcing” your brand, taking it from behind the walled gardens of brand guidelines and pass it to the people onto a platter, letting them play with it, memefy it, and turn it into a pop culture artefact.

Ze is what resulted when Zelensky removed the clutter and handed the source code - the kernel to the pop culture. ‘Ze’ is an example of what happens when a so-called boring industry (politics) becomes cool.

Another great example of a company working in the boring industry turning itself cool is Maersk. And what could possibly be more boring than shipping and transportation? Maersk turned this upside down, made thousands fight to land a dream job in a logistics company and won ‘The Social Media Campaign of the Year’ in 2012. Have a look at their Facebook page to get the taste of how B2B logistics can be cool.

Canadian born Naomi Klein became the leading figure of a modern-day anti-corporate movement fuelled by thousands of young people who turned against popular brands, hijacking their communities and their public spaces. It seems their time has finally come. Pop culture is pushing back on corporations and politicians, reclaiming back their lost space. It uses pop symbols - popular memes, the language of the Internet nation - to recruit thousands, just like when a 1990s Vengaboys' song united Austrians in massive anti government protests that sparked just a few days ago.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)