Skip to main content

Note: This piece was originally published over the weekend in our Sunday newsletter. Want content like this delivered to your inbox before it hits our blog? Subscribe here.

The Big Story: Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks to Russians in emotional plea against war in Ukraine

A masterclass in communications.

The headline tells you exactly what happened late last week. But it comes nowhere near capturing the why, the how, the pure power of one public figure wading with deep authenticity into geopolitics. But powerful it was. Catching our attention. Holding us rapt. Moving us.

Watch it twice. Once to feel it. And then again to understand how it works.

We’re witnessing an extraordinary moment of powerful communications and communicators.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a parallel communications battle the likes of which we haven’t seen in this generation and which is beyond the scope of our weekly Quick Think. No surprise if textbooks are written about the situation, featuring, among other things:

  • The eloquent, razor-sharp messages – delivered through words and deeds – of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • The harnessing of social media for “You Are There” journalism and “Are You Really There?” manipulation.
  • The Orwellian efforts by Russia to change the narrative against a sea of troubles, to block a tide of digital and tragically tangible information that cannot be denied.

But for today, we look at a single example from someone whose career trajectory broadly mirrors that of Zelensky – from kitschy actor to prominent politician. That training alone is worth noting when it comes to communications.

Outlandishly long in our distracted age of no attention spans, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unexpected video – viewed by more than 30 million watchers within in 24 hours of its release – speaks directly to the people of Russia. We’ve captured several outstanding aspects of his compelling, at times personal message. If you take away just one thing, let it be this: The messenger must match the moment. Nothing brings home profound facts and difficult calls to action more than clear-eyed honesty and personal stories well and sincerely told.

Beyond that, a bit of video analysis…

  • It’s built for maximum reach. Schwarzenegger starts by telegraphing a basic communications principle. He says that he’s posting the video on multiple channels to make it as accessible as possible. It’s also subtitled in both Russian and English.
  • It’s built to target specific audiences. Difficult to pull off in a single piece, Schwarzenegger speaks sequentially to Russian soldiers, Russian citizens and Russian leaders – and then even more directly to Putin. The core message remains consistent as the specifics are adjusted for the audience. And in doing so, he is never manipulative. He tells viewers exactly who he’s speaking to – no games, no obfuscation, full transparency.
  • It’s direct about the goal from the start. Schwarzenegger begins by looking into the camera and giving a personal message to the people of Russia, expresses his life-long connection and affection for them, and then explaining where he’s going with it all. The environment is set to emphasize the directness and empathy: a tight shot of him at a table with a sober, but soft, expression.
  • It’s anchored by stories. After his intro, Schwarzenegger tells a story about his connection with Russia and the conflict that connection caused between him and his father – because of his father’s own painful connection to Russia from World War II. Throughout the remaining minutes, he continues to weave in personal stories.
  • It establishes credibility and rapport. Before detailing how the Russian people have been lied to, Schwarzenegger says, “No one likes to hear something critical of their government. But…as a longtime friend of the Russian people, I hope you will hear what I have to say.” By this point he’s already demonstrated his affinity for those very people. He also points out his consistency. He’s not targeting Russians but is “speaking with the same heartfelt concern” that he did to Americans after January 6, 2021.
  • It points no fingers (except at Putin and the Kremlin). He is surgically careful to separate the people to whom he is speaking from their leaders. He is explicit that they are not to blame. On the contrary, he assures them they have been misled. In effect, he comes alongside them with an arm around the shoulder rather than facing them down.
  • It’s methodical. Schwarzenegger knocks down the major points of current Kremlin propaganda one at a time. The Russian people, he said, have been told the invasion is a rescue operation to de-Nazify Ukraine. “This is not true,” he intones. He states facts and frames them with stories. Not only is Ukraine not being led by Nazis, but the current president is a Jew “whose father’s three brothers were all murdered by the Nazis.”
  • It offers emotional context for facts. For example, he shares the fact that civilian centers have been targeted and backs it up with the emotional stories and images from the deaths of mothers and children in the maternity hospital bombing. Even relatively dry data is given emotional weight. He doesn’t just say that the UN has condemned Russia. He adds that 141 members voted against Russia – with only four voting in favor.
  • It includes clear calls to action. Schwarzenegger asks the various audiences to understand they’re being fed propaganda and to consider that what he says is the reality. He asks people to spread the truth. He asks soldiers to consider the effects of the action they’ve been told to take. More than 11 million Russians have family connections to Ukraine and so, “Every bullet you shoot, you shoot a brother or sister.” He calls on Putin, by name, to end the invasion. But for every viewer, an unspoken challenge is clear: Now that you know, what will you do?
  • It ends with words of support and encouragement. To those Russians who have protested and spoken out he says, “The world has seen your bravery. You are my new heroes.” It’s true, and it helps the medicine go down.

A masterclass indeed.

This piece was originally published over the weekend in our Sunday Quick Think newsletter. Fill out the form to get that in your inbox every week.